Thursday, April 24, 2014

Transcendence Review

Directed by Wally Pfister
Released in 2014

Call me old fashioned, but I would rather watch a blockbuster with big ideas, conversing with the issues facing us today as well as millennia of literature and shared cultural history, than another superhero movie. The latest Johnny Depp bomb Transcendence — which grossed only $10.8 million last weekend, off a $100 million budget — fails as an action film, which the trailer makes it out to be, and could use a bit more pep as a thriller, which it actually is. By current Hollywood standards, it is sort of incompetent. But it succeeds, with pleasing consistency and formal rigor, as a film that raises questions, about our futures, plural, our presents and our pasts. It works as art.

I know I am fighting an uphill battle here, praising what Rotten Tomatoes has already canonized as trash, so let me complicate things further with some basic plot summary: Alongside his wife Evelyn (Rebecca Hall), Will Caster (Depp) foresees a world where computer intelligence supersedes that of a human, in that it becomes sentient. An affectless scientist and even drier orator, Caster nevertheless commands a lot of respect, as seen by Elon Musk’s head peeking from the U.C. Berkeley audience soaking in his Jobs-ian keynote. Some radical Neo-Luddite faction led by a noirish Kate Mara (House of Cards) lashes out, bombing artificial intelligence research labs and shooting Will after his speech. He survives the bullet but succumbs to its radiation contamination a month later — just enough time for Evelyn, along with friend and fellow scientist Max (Paul Bettany), to “upload” Will’s consciousness to an advanced computer framework the three of them had long been developing, in order for Will to keep on living when his body cannot.

The trailer and poster give away as much, but Will makes it. Or some form of Will — therein lies much of the dramatic tension. Depp’s performance is not notable, but that is kind of the point: Will is so bland it is impossible to gauge any loss of humanity when he jumps to a computer screen. Perhaps Warner Bros. should have put $20-plus million to better use, rather than casting him in such a flat part, but Depp’s presence at least comments, if unwittingly, on the automatic trust we place in celebrities whose faces grace magazine covers. Max doubts this new Will is actually Will, because his crackly, disembodied voice rattles off most megalomaniac demands. But not Evelyn: She senses her husband through the 1s and 0s and agrees to connect Will to the Internet and facilitate his dreams, which are also hers.

This all sounds quite silly, describing the plot like this, but Jack Paglen’s script pushes forward at a believable clip, with only weak dialogue as its cardinal sin. Speaking of sin, the film’s richest dialogue occurs beneath the text and involves the story of Adam and Eve. Named, one can assume, in reference to Eve, Evelyn threatens the world with another Fall of Man, except self-awareness will not now plague humans, who already have it, but a being whose intelligence we cannot fathom. Eve has long been blamed for the Fall; in Paradise Lost, the most admirable defense Milton could summon was to point at Adam and basically say, “She was yours; you should have kept her in her place.” Here, Evelyn’s love drives her initial actions, which put mankind on the brink once again, but it is her genius and unfailing agency which seek to reverse that course.

Will does not make it easy: In the midst of his underground Southwest research facility, he sets up an intimate ski lodge bungalow for the two of them to share. Evelyn can only speak to his likeness on a screen, but when Will recounts his memories of how they fell in love, it is impossible to deny the grounded, human feeling of the moment. Yet director Wally Pfister has us doubt this exchange, for he toys with the multiplicity of screens Will uses to reach her. First Pfister gives us a standard shot reverse shot, with Evelyn curled on a couch and looking up at Will, who is framed and flatters like a cool Humphrey Bogart. At the end of this unusual love scene, however, Pfister frames Evelyn as before, now joined with another screen of Will’s, one she does not see. It’s the same Will that is projected on the other screen, we assume, but it hovers just over her shoulder, whispering sweet nothings into her ear like a serpent. Will is both human and machine, God and Satan in this one scene, embodying divine paradoxes in a plausible, fascinating conceit.

Considering he only got to sit in the director’s chair due to his Oscar-winning tenure as Christopher Nolan’s cinematographer, Pfister recognizes the visual supremacy of his medium. Crumbled, monochromatic desert reminiscent of that in the video game Fallout: New Vegas contrasts with sleek, Apple Store-white corridors — the former dwarfs those standing in it, thanks to the inhospitality of nature and such, while the latter merges with Evelyn, who has a penchant for white, as she walks through them. When Will’s cyber self begins to incorporate nanotechnology, blue strains of sentient particles ascend from the desert ground into the air we all breathe. I think of a line Cormac McCarthy uses to describe post-apocalypse in The Road: “The salitter drying from the earth.” That archaic word, “salitter,” means “the grace of God.” Here, Will extracts this essence from the earth only to join with it and, he hopes, create it in his own image.

There is a whole political dimension to this film, too, which presents a scenario of miraculous health care, through Will’s technology, only to rule it a reckless fantasy. It is not a very weighty take on the issue, but at least it beats Elysium. In fact, Transcendence trumps a number of recent movies at their own game: It is a more literate Biblical movie than Noah, a wiser dissection of private and public surveillance than Captain America: The Winter Soldier, a knottier machine-man love story in that one scene than all of Her. This is smart, big-budget filmmaking, folks. So what if Cillian Murphy and Morgan Freeman’s characters are so bad I purposefully neglected to mention them until now? You will not remember them — seriously, there’s not even, like, camp value in their awfulness — but, if you keep your tomatoes holstered, you should remember the rest.

Final Verdict:
3.5 Stars Out of 5

This article was written for The Cornell Daily Sun and can be viewed at its original location here

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