Thankfully, it's the former. And how could it not be, when the film is more or less a remake of Deep Blue Sea, minus the sharks? There's the computer-generated, isolated-island lab; a demographically mixed group of victims who will be picked off one by one; the sense that all these deaths are the result of government irresponsibility; and even a sudden, shocking celebrity-death scene, mirroring Deep Blue Sea's most memorable moment. All that and LL Cool J too. Oh, and the movie opens with images of deep water and someone drowning -- this will later prove to be of minor importance in a key scene.
Following the credits, we pick up with FBI trainees Christian Slater and Minority Report's Kathryn Morris (looking here like Ellen DeGeneres, strangely enough), on the trail of a serial killer through fake-looking snow. Like every serial killer imagined by screenwriters nowadays, this one is clearly a goth who owns a large old house full of doll parts, music boxes, and dead animals. But things are not as they appear: A rather obvious "surprise" occurs, and in short order our profilers-in-training are being reprimanded by teacher Val Kilmer, whose casting feels like a deliberate tip-off that his character may be insane.
Slater's and Morris's characters are part of a larger class who, for their final exam, are to be shipped off to a remote island that's been tricked out as a sort of CSI-themed Disneyland infested with stray cats, which are all the better to create cheap shocks with, à la Alien, or kill for cheap gross-outs, à la Gummo. Somewhere in this new environment lies a staged crime scene, clues to the nature of which could be anywhere and everywhere. Among the stranded: LL Cool J as a last-minute government liaison, Jonny Lee Miller as an annoyingly fake southerner (even his Trainspotting co-star Ewan McGregor does better American accents), big-screen newcomer Will Kemp as a spunky Brit (standout line: "'E just pulled that gun ou' of 'is arse!"), Clifton Collins Jr. as a surly gun nut in a wheelchair, and Patricia Velasquez as -- surprise! -- a hot-tempered Latina.
A strangled cat with a broken watch in its guts kicks off the excitement, as the group splits into teams of two to find their assignment. No sooner is it found than a preposterously elaborate and easily escapable death trap activates, claiming a life at exactly the time shown on the broken watch. The rest of the movie is basically a series of repetitions of this action, as Rube Goldberg-style devices proceed to claim one life at a time, always at exactly the hour specified on a conspicuously placed broken clock. It is determined by infrared rays that no one else is on the island with the group, so one of them is most likely the killer, adding to the paranoia.
In other words, this is a slasher movie. It's not about the characters or the dramatic tension or any kind of believability. It's about how cool the death scenes are, and on that score, Harlin is a champ. Recalling the gory grotesque kills he devised for Freddy Krueger back in A Nightmare on Elm Street Part 4, in Mindhunters he has invested most of his time and energy into creatively gruesome demises. But they're not entirely random: When the pattern behind the killings is finally revealed, it adds a nice touch to the proceedings. Props to screenwriter Wayne Kramer (The Cooler) for that -- and for not telegraphing exactly whose time is up next; when anyone can die at any time, it's a good recipe for suspense.
Regarding that, though, it does tend to undercut the suspense when one is saddled with a majorly crappy score (credited to Finnish composer Tuomas Kantelinen) that vacillates from mediocre hard rock to intrusive orchestral, without any apparent regard for what's actually onscreen. It's also lame when a climactic confrontation suddenly devolves into sped-up kung fu, especially since neither participant looks all that well versed in the martial arts. Of the cast, only Collins delivers a memorable performance with the sort of energy and intensity this film needs; Kilmer's good too, but basically a glorified cameo.
Despite all its flaws -- and there are enough to render Mindhunters indefensible on most purely cinematic levels -- there are times when certain moviegoers just feel the need to stare far-fetched, blood-drenched death in the eye and laugh. It's here, so have at it.