Movie Review: “Transcendence” (Wally Pfister, UK/China/USA 2014)

It seems like everyone in Hollywood who is successful in one area eventually tries directing, and every profession has its own typical pitfalls. Actors tend to fall in love with giving their actors scenery to chew and meaty characters to dig into and neglect everything visual. Writers tend to fall in love with their stories and forget to have a point (and make the stories too complex). Musicians tend to be awful at everything. Cinematographers are the people who are most clearly positioned to make such a transition successfully, since they already have to handle the visual elements of a film as cinematographers, but they sometimes fall end up being the prototypical “style over substance” filmmakers–more interested in drawing attention to themselves than in serving the film. (However, I tend to enjoy style over substance.)

Wally Pfister has had an excellent 20-year run as a cinematographer, first for Roger Corman, whose obsession with making silly sexploitation flicks and low-budget crap has masked the fact that he has been a remarkable judge of talent for many years, and then for Christopher Nolan, who has become the celebrity director du jour for the public the last few years. Nolan’s films have always looked good, and that’s attributable not just to Nolan but also to Pfister, so I was excited to see his directorial debut.

Pfister and screenwriter Jack Paglen concoct a story that seems ripe for being another example the all-too-common horror/sci-fi warning about the dangers of technology: Artificial intelligence researcher Will Caster has the world’s strongest AI but no way of imbuing it with consciousness when he is attacked by a “neo-luddite” (awesome term) terrorist group that also destroys decades’ worth of research at other AI facilities. As a result, the FBI gives him groundbreaking research from another researcher that gives him that final piece of the puzzle–uploading an existing consciousness instead of creating it artificially–just as radiation poisoning from the attack begins to melt away his life. His wife (a fellow AI researcher) and best friend (another AI researcher) then come up with an obvious plan: Upload the dying Will’s consciousness into the AI. He of course becomes essentially all-powerful and moves technology forward at a frightening pace, always being dogged by the terrorists from earlier but also by former friends who find this newfound existence both frightening and decidedly un-Will-like.

It’s fairly standard “I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream” rip-off material, but Pfister and Paglen provide an interesting twist: throughout, the neo-Luddites and the others who are frightened by the AI’s growth and actions are frightened for unexplained reasons because they actually do not have good reason for their fear. They’re worried that “Will” is amassing an army when it turns out he’s just helping people to get better from illness and enhancing them because he can. They’re afraid that he’s sending out nanobots (straight out of Doctor Who) to embed himself irrevocably in the world when he’s really trying to fix the environment, as his wife had always hoped to do. They’re afraid he wants to upload his wife into the AI because he’s not really Will’s consciousness, but he actually wants to because he is Will’s consciousness and he wants to be with her. The film’s point is that we shouldn’t fear advancement just because it is advancement–we should make sure that it’s actually something to be feared first. And the film actually makes its point reasonably well for the most part, though it strays several times to improve its love story and give Paul Bettany and Kate Mara more screen time.

I was excited to see what Pfister would do because we already know he has a good eye, but he and cinematographer Jess Hall did fall a bit into the cinematographer’s trap of forgetting to serve its subject. He became obsessed with his slow motion shots of dripping water that served no real purpose and went through some watered-down Sergei Eisenstein montages that only served as distractions. He also used a bit much CGI, considering that his story could easily have been altered to avoid using quite so much of it. Still, his mastery of shadows and color was on full display, so the film still looked good enough. I also like to give points for being unconventional even when it doesn’t work. The film took some visual risks, and it should be applauded for that.

For a film with so many big stars, there was hardly anything for them to do. The makeup does all the work for Johnny Depp when he’s getting sick and his hair does all the work in showing that he’s a stressed-out schlub before that, and he really has no emotions to play throughout. Nolan favorite Cillian Murphy is wasted in a role as an FBI agent who doesn’t so much as get annoyed at someone or show any real anxiety. Morgan Freeman is Morgan Freeman–kindly, wise, and eminently calm. The only person who really has anything to do is Rebecca Hall, who turns in an excellent performance in a surprisingly complex role. She has to play complex mixed emotions throughout the film, and does it very well. It’s a credit to Hall that the strongest single moment in the film isn’t one of Pfister’s shots but rather her exchange with Morgan Freeman when he asks if she is okay at Will’s AI facility–it’s a beautiful moment of complex emotion watching her trying to convince both herself and Freeman that she’s okay and Freeman not believing it for a second.

All told, Transcendence was a reasonably good film. It had some weaknesses and came off a bit pretentious because of Pfister’s desire to show off a few visual ideas he had, but it had a point and mostly stuck to it. It wouldn’t be an inaccurate to call this one style over substance, but at least it has enough style to be that. We’ve certainly seen some worse films this year.

Notes

  • With all of his technological innovation, Will still couldn’t make it so that his face wouldn’t flicker and glitch constantly?
  • Morgan Freeman listening to classical music–David Fincher would be proud.
  • Seriously, they were Doctor Who nanobots: http://youtu.be/hpKfkMuaIXQ
  • The nanobots can heal the guy’s skin almost instantly but not his clothes? Self-repairing clothing is not all that far off now, but Will can’t figure it out?
  • I’m sure that Freeman likes doing sci-fi films because of his professed love of science and reason, but it’s starting to feel like somewhere in Hollywood all the directors have to sign a contract to cast him in all futuristic or sci-fi films they make.
  • Johnny Depp spends nearly the entire film on video screens, presumably filmed in front of a green screen, and yet he needed two drivers. Why would you ever need two drivers? Presumably you can’t need to go to two places at once. Maybe one could only drive him for part of the time so they ended up changing or they fired one and replaced him with the other? I’ve probably thought too much about this.
  • Apparently Kate Winslet was supposed to be the lead but had scheduling issues. I guess Pfister knew he needed someone good!

Thoughts on the Previews: April 18, 2014

Another new feature to try out: these are some random thoughts I had during the previews at the theater today. There will be a movie review probably later tonight (at worst early tomorrow), but I often have things to say about the previews, so I might as well say them here. Note that I’m not necessarily covering everything. I really have nothing to say about another Expendables movie–I just rolled my eyes at its existence and moved on.

Commercials: Orphan Black and M&Ms

  • I love M&M commercials. Like always. They do these stupid little fake movie trailers to tell people to silence their cell phones and yet they are just consistently awesome. They are such a perfect mimicry of typical movie trailers. They’re like the This Is Spinal Tap (Rob Reiner, USA 1984) of movie commercials.
  • It’s good to see that Orphan Black is getting pub. I’m going to do episode-by-episode reviews this season, since I got a season pass on Amazon. Note that, like Breaking Bad‘s final half-season, I will be a little behind because I have to wait for those to come up.

Trailer: The Amazing Spider-Man 2 (Marc Webb, USA 2014)

  • I remember when Marc Webb was an exciting young visionary. He made a brilliant film in (500) Days of Summer (Marc Webb, USA 2009) that was simultaneously a great love story, a deconstruction of movie love stories, and a masterclass in how to cover up a poor lead actor in Zooey Deschanel (Sorry F!). Then, he caught the Bryan Singer-copyrighted Superhero Movie bug.
  • Spider-Man is a stupid superhero. He’s whiny and annoying.
  • “You know what I love about being Spider-Man?” Clearly, the tight suit and being able to be supposedly shy but have a new love interest every five issues but it’s obvious you’re going to say everything. “Everything.” Yeah, that was obvious.

Trailer: Lucy (Luc Besson, France 2014)

  • “It’s been estimated that the average human being only uses 10% of their cognitive ability” (note: this is from memory). Only by idiots! I was a psychology major. I took neurology classes. Guess what? That’s a myth. Here is Snopes.com debunking it. Here’s Scientific American doing the same thing. Even Wikipedia knows it! We need another movie perpetuating this nonsense and using it as its basis??!!! You know what would actually happen if someone could access 28% of her brain? She would be a drooling puddle of goo!!!
  • I remember when Scarlett Johansson and Morgan Freeman were real actors. I miss them.
  • Luc Besson’s career is a mystery to me.

Trailer: X-Men: Days of Future Past (Bryan Singer, USA 2014)

  • I remember when Bryan Singer was a real director. Sigh.
  • To be fair, the X-Men movies do always look much more like real movies than most comic book fare. I’ve still never wanted to watch one, though.

Trailer: Guardians of the Galaxy (James Gunn, USA 2014)

  • I thought casting Chris Pratt, in spite of his bulk, as a superhero was a little weird, because he just oozes sweetness. However, I now see why they cast him, and I’m sort of interested in this.
  • Did they really just not even bother to show Karen Gillan in the trailer?
  • I will not speak of what Karen Gillan did to herself for this film. I may avoid it only because of that.
  • The Karen Gillan tag has way more entries than any logic would suggest that it should . . .
  • Doesn’t this sort of look like a movie version of Firefly?
  • My favorite part of the flipping off the camera joke was actually the computer saying, “Warning: Imminent Obscene Gesture Detected.” They have the technology to do something that impressive, and that’s what they use it for?! Yeah, that actually sounds like something a government would do. I’m sad now.

Trailer: Jersey Boys (Clint Eastwood, USA 2014)

  • “Oh what a night/Late December back in ’63/What a very special time for me/What a lady, what a night . . .” Oh, that’s not here. Boo.
  • Clint Eastwood . . . musical . . . not sure about that idea. Eastwood has some goodwill for me, but his last film was a total embarrassment, so he’d better get it together.

Movie Review: “Oculus” (Mike Flanagan, USA 2013)

Horror movies are often fascinating socio-political objects, particularly the less artistically-minded, more commercial ones. Stanley Kubrick saying that we needed to be careful not to hold onto the past so tightly that it swallows us whole was interesting (And The Shining [Stanley Kubrick, UK/USA 1980] was perhaps the greatest horror film ever made–Stephen King’s lunatic criticisms be damned.), but it wasn’t necessarily indicative of some popular zeitgeist. Saw (James Wan, USA/Australia 2004), meanwhile, while nowhere near as artistically successful, was indicative of the central moral-political divide in the United States–worrying about the possibility of replacing a “traditional” moral code with a new one that has its own logic but terrifying results. And since the fears horror films are playing off of are worn on the movies’ sleeves, so to speak, their points are often clear and unmistakable, which also makes them rather easy to analyze, at least in the bizarro way that I look at films.

Oculus is a cursed object story about a life-swallowing demon mirror–that’s obvious from the poster. (Actually, it’s obvious from the title.) So, what does that say that we’re afraid of? Mirrors are symbols of vanity, of the past or looking behind us, or sometimes even of clarity and truth, so there are lots of directions to go.

The more specific plot details may give us some insight: Tim Russell has just been released from 11 years in a psychiatric institution after killing his father who had just tortured and murdered his mother. Tim meets up with his sister, who says that the memories he once had of that time, when he believed that the demonic mirror drove him to his actions, are actually the truth and what the psychiatrists have now taught him is nonsense. She sets about proving the evil of the mirror before destroying it, apparently only with the motive of proving wrong everyone who ever looked at her cross-eyed because of her crazy story. Okay, so now we know that one of the lead characters is a typically stupid horror movie lead. And we can see what Oculus thinks we should be afraid of: not being able to define reality.

The problem is that this film just doesn’t really stick to making that point. It’s so concerned with its telegraphed jump scares and all-too-predictable storyline that it loses itself in those elements, forgetting what it’s actually about. Anyone who has read my reviews before knows that is essentially the cardinal sin of filmmaking for me, and this film was as guilty of it as any.

On the bright side, Flanagan and cinematographer Michael Fimognari actually seem to have some new ideas–there are camera angles and filters that just don’t tend to appear in modern horror films, like the odd sideways bed shot of Alan and Marie. However, they seem to be doing them for no real reason, and they also fall into their fair share of conventions, whether it’s the cool blue color scheme or the repeated use of doors as screen wipes to move between the past and the present. Overall, the film is okay visually, but nothing special, and its visual language is hampered by the script’s inability to stay on message.

I was trepidatious about seeing Karen Gillan in another role. I loved Amy Pond so much, but I also could see that the former model was, well, a non-actor. She improved a great deal over the course of her run on Doctor Who, to the point that some critics even praised her work in “The Girl Who Waited” (I thought they were crazy, but I seem to be in a minority.) in season six, where she was actually counted on to carry the show emotionally for an hour. It turns out that there was no need to worry, because (a) Flanagan gave her a character who was essentially a more extreme version of Amy Pond and (b) he didn’t give her too much to do. Amy’s defining features were her bravery (Well, and her sarcasm–Sarcasm is cool!) and loyalty, and Kaylie Russell shares those qualities. In fact, she even takes the loyalty to such an extreme that she cannot betray even her own ideas from childhood. As a result, she only has to show a smug self-satisfaction for the first hour followed by fear for the last 45 minutes–she doesn’t have to portray anything any more complex or any other emotions. They don’t ask too much of her, but she does what they give her just fine.

And Kaylie is clearly the most well-defined and deepest character in the film, so no one else has to do much of anything. Katee Sackhoff is forced to play a character supernaturally and suddenly driven insane and so is over-the-top and cartoonish, but that’s the script’s fault rather than hers. No one really stands out in either direction, because there isn’t a way for them to do so.

The Newton Brothers provide a completely conventional modern horror score–nothing interesting to note here. Much of the film is done without a score, seemingly attempting to use silence by itself as a tension-making device, an idea that just doesn’t work without some other efforts. I suggest that Flanagan try watching the Breaking Bad episode “Box Cutter” sometime and learn how suspense works.

Overall, Oculus is forgettable. It’s not really any worse than the typical commercial horror film, but it’s not any better either. It has some interesting visual ideas and a charismatic star, but it doesn’t know its point and doesn’t know how to use tension or suspense to make its jump scares powerful.

Notes

  • Annalise Basso, who previously appeared on both Lie to Me and Parks and Recreation, looks nothing like Karen Gillan. Just having red hair doesn’t make you look like Karen Gillan. Stephen Moffat didn’t seem to understand that, and apparently neither does Flanagan.
  • If the mirror just needs to suck the life out of things and it’s capable of just eating living things like it does to the dog and the plants, why does it go through the song and dance it does with these people? It seems to be an artistically-motivated mirror, which is more terrifying than intended . . .
  • If the plants die when it eats their life force, so to speak, why does the dog just disappear?
  • She says it will get stronger as it goes and has seen the mirror affect people throughout the same house before, but Kaylie decides that the mirror’s sphere of influence ends where the last dead plant is?
  • The light bulb eating scene, as obvious as it was, was still painful. I wanted to go to a dentist waiting for that scene to end.
  • Am I the only one who thought the first time that we saw Kaylie see the Woman that it seemed to be Marie? Was it? Of course, it makes perfect sense for it to be or not to be . . . because the mirror can apparently do anything it wants at any time but just doesn’t for no apparent reason . . .
  • Marie should have raised the obvious complaint about the mirror: it’s butt-ugly. Maybe he would have listened and this whole story would never have occurred.
  • In Kaylie’s timeline, the mirror seems to take an awful lot of time off between its kills at some times, and yet she seems remarkably unperturbed by that fact.
  • Seriously, why didn’t she just destroy it? The reasoning she gives is so flimsy.