Tuesday, April 22, 2014

In Theaters: TRANSCENDENCE (2014)

(US/China - 2014)

Directed by Wally Pfister.  Written by Jack Paglen. Cast: Johnny Depp, Rebecca Hall, Morgan Freeman, Paul Bettany, Cillian Murphy, Kate Mara, Cole Hauser, Clifton Collins Jr., Josh Stewart, Lukas Haas, Cory Hardrict, Falk Hentschel, Steven Liu, Xander Berkeley, Wallace Langham. (PG-13, 119 mins)

Since his 2000 breakthrough MEMENTO, Christopher Nolan's go-to cinematographer has been Wally Pfister, who got his start working second unit camera crews on Roger Corman productions like BODY CHEMISTRY and SLUMBER PARTY MASSACRE III before photographing early 1990s straight-to-video erotic thriller "classics" like SECRET GAMES and ANIMAL INSTINCTS. Pfister got an Oscar for his work on Nolan's INCEPTION, and makes his directing debut with TRANSCENDENCE, which lists Nolan as an executive producer, features several Nolan vets in the cast (Rebecca Hall, Morgan Freeman, Cillian Murphy, Josh Stewart, Lukas Haas), and has a very Nolan-like concept courtesy of first-time screenwriter Jack Paglen. Paglen's script is muddled, and though it's probably meant to be a gray area, there's no consistency in the characterizations or who the villain is really supposed to be. There's an argument for ambiguity but given how hopelessly convoluted and downright silly the whole film is, the answer could very well be that the filmmakers simply don't know.  Considering its pedigree, TRANSCENDENCE is a misfire of catastrophic proportions, a supposedly cutting-edge vision filled with hard sci-fi techno-jargon, but it continually proclaims the most rudimentary messages that sound like Paglen's cribbing from a college freshman's Intro to Philosophy essay exam.  It makes thuddingly obvious observations about the internet and our reliance on technology, with paranoid lip service paid to government surveillance and the lack of privacy in social media, tossing out buzzwords like "upload" and "off the grid" and even throws a bone to those who might still be losing sleep over Y2K. How old is this script? And how many times did it get shuffled to the bottom of Nolan's slush pile before he got sick of coming across it and punked his buddy Pfister into making it?

In a performance so somnambulant that Pfister should've just used a picture of him with a Conan O'Brien superimposed, talking mouth, Johnny Depp is Dr. Will Caster, an artificial intelligence pioneer who, with his work partner and wife Evelyn (Hall) and their associate Max (Paul Bettany), has designed PINN, a fully sentient computer system. Will is targeted by a "neo-Luddite" anti-technology terrorist group called R.I.F.T. (Revolutionary Independence from Technology) with members who have infiltrated his own research team and plotted a series of computer lab bombings across the country. After giving a speech at a university, Will is shot by one such activist (Haas), though the bullet only grazes him.  The damage is done however, as he soon grows deathly ill and it's revealed the bullet was poisoned with radiation that's now in his bloodstream.  Given five weeks to live, Will abandons his research until Evelyn comes up with the idea of wiring into his brain and loading his consciousness into PINN.  Will dies, and soon begins communicating with Evelyn and Max through the computer system, instructing her to download "him" to the internet.  Max is alarmed by the suddenly megalomaniacal Will and when he voices his objections, Evelyn sends him on his way to be abducted by R.I.F.T., and he eventually join forces with them. Meanwhile, Will, alive online and seen MAX HEADROOM-style on computer monitors, hacks into various global computer systems, clearing out Wall Street and depositing the money into an account for Evelyn to buy Brightwood, a nearly-deserted desert ghost town, converting it into their high-tech base of operations for a complete technological takeover.  The virtual Will evolves at such an accelerated rate that he's able to heal the sick and disabled, who are then linked to his source code, synched with him to function as living, tangible extensions of himself.  He's creating an army of Will Casters, with the government, led by FBI agent Buchanan (Murphy) and Will's old colleague Tagger (Freeman), aligned with Max and R.I.F.T. in hot pursuit.

This film is an absolute mess. What is Christopher Nolan doing shepherding what amounts to little more than a $100 million remake of THE LAWNMOWER MAN? Paglen's script is an incoherent, nonsensical jumble.  The film opens in a dystopian CHILDREN OF MEN-type setting, with keyboards being used as doorstops and Max mentioning that "there might be phone service in Denver." Will's death and subsequent online reanimation happened five years earlier, and the Brightwood plotline two years after that.  Brightwood was funded with money stolen by "Will" and Evelyn.  When Buchanan drags Tagger to Brightwood two years later, how is it possible that he hasn't brought along the entire bureau to arrest her? Instead, she introduces them to the virtual Will and then they leave to plot a military attack, with help from R.I.F.T.  What the hell is the government doing working with a domestic terror organization?  Especially the one that caused all the trouble by killing Will in the first place?  We learn so little about Buchanan and R.I.F.T. leader Bree (Kate Mara) that it's probable that neither Pfister nor Paglen know, either. Does anyone pay for their crimes in TRANSCENDENCE's world? 

It's been said that no one sets out to make a bad movie, that sometimes they just happen. Watching TRANSCENDENCE, you can actualy see the actors wearing defeat throughout. You can see on Freeman's face and hear in his line deliveries that he knows this is a dud. While it's nice to see Depp sans the Tim Burton security blanket of white pancake makeup and silly costumes and not crutching on eccentricities and assorted Hunter S. Thompson affectations, this is probably his worst performance.  It's one that reflects his utter lack of engagement with the material--and you could hardly blame him--and is not that of an actor, but rather a bored celebrity who already has more money than he'll ever spend in a lifetime. Sure, the material is stale and dated, but at least a Nolan regular like Christian Bale would've brought something to the role, like a pulse, perhaps. Hall is OK but suffers playing a sketchily-designed character, but she at least fares better than Bettany, Murphy, and Mara, who are saddled with even less. Considering that he's a cinematographer first, you'd think Pfister would at least give the film a great look, but it's not even very interesting on that level. There's a lot of long, ominous corridors and expansive labs of the antiseptic, dehumanized Kubrick variety, but they're shot very plainly by HOT FUZZ cinematographer Jess Hall. TRANSCENDENCE stumbles out of the gate and never finds its footing, and it only gets more pretentious, ponderous, and hokey as it proceeds.

Going back to the silent era, there's no shortage of great cinematographers who became accomplished filmmakers--Karl Freund, Freddie Francis (who quit directing and went back to cinematography late in his career, winning an Oscar for GLORY), Jack Cardiff, Mario Bava, Nicolas Roeg, and Jan de Bont to name just a few. Gordon Willis photographed some of the most iconic films of the 1970s (KLUTE, THE GODFATHER, THE GODFATHER PART II, THE PARALLAX VIEW, ALL THE PRESIDENT'S MEN, ANNIE HALL, MANHATTAN) before making his directorial debut with the 1980 suspense thriller WINDOWS.  It was the first major release of its year, opening to universally toxic reviews and was all but buried by its studio for over 30 years before getting an MOD DVD release. Willis was arguably the top D.P. in American cinema for a decade, got his shot at running the show and blew it. He promptly licked his wounds and returned to his old gig, keeping busy and eventually retiring in 1997.  He never directed a second film. WINDOWS is a bad movie but it looks terrific.  TRANSCENDENCE doesn't even have that going for it. I guess what I'm saying is this: TRANSCENDENCE is Wally Pfister's WINDOWS.

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