Saturday, April 19, 2014

Transcendence(2014) : Pfister's Directorial Debut Is Lost At Sea

I cannot help but be curious about the origins of Wally Pfister's directorial debut, TRANSCENDENCE, and what mindset found the premise worth exploring. Outside of some truly regressive feelings on the nature of technology, versus humanity's inability to let go, there seems to be something both frightened, and sad happening here. If the film's inspirations lie within decades of technophobic cinema, then TRANSCENDENCE plays well as a bizarre spiritual throwback. And while Pfister's connections to major Hollywood (He has long been the Director of Photography for the films of Christopher Nolan) are impressive, they seem to be in the service of something both unsettling, and hopelessly "disconnected".

Five years before a technological apocalypse, computer research luminaries, Will and Evelyn Caster (a sleepy Johnny Depp and Rebecca Hall) are on the verge of a breakthrough in artificial intelligence with the hope of making the world a better place. But after an anti-tech terrorist attack leaves numbers in the computer development community dead, and Will poisoned by a radiation-tainted bullet, things seem grim. Until Evelyn considers the unthinkable. Based on a previous experiment involving a primate's uploaded consciousness into the Caster's incredible computer creation, PiNN, she considers doing the same with her ailing husband's mind. Upon agreement, and his inevitable passing, the computer rendition of Will is stunningly convincing. But this digital version of the AI genius seems far more ambitious than anyone (even Evelyn) could ever hope to control.

Without any further plot details, the film almost instantly falls apart once one considers the world that is established, and how these characters operate. While the Casters are one-noted, and hopelessly facile in their portrayals, the "luddite" terrorists that see this merging of flesh and machine to be feared, are laughably thin. Read back that last sentence for just a moment. The very idea that a faction that is against technology seems pretty comfortable in tracking and inevitably killing those who seem to empower them. An early line implies that these individuals are "ironic", and irrational feels like an attempt to justify their lack of depth. But it only leads to bigger questions regarding the theme of the piece. It doesn't help that the Caster's one close friend, scientist Max (Paul Bettany) , seems to espouse a more cautionary perspective regarding computation, and an inherent lack of a perfectly replicated soul. The argument ultimately whittles down to an almost old fashioned notion that decries the possibilities inherent in science. While Jack Paglen's script so badly wants to portray Max's perspective as a moral compass to the film's central questions, it cannot help but come off as shallow. Even Kate Mara's terrorist character seems primed to be a set of eyes to view the dilemma, but is undercut by having nearly nothing to do. A lot of underwritten characterization only serves to grant viewers no compass with which to work with, leaving the film in a confused fog.

But what truly burns about this whole debacle, is that as Pfister's debut film (not to mention an expensive one), this is one that reeks of an almost anti-futurist, but also anti-pluralist spirit. While the film wants to offer up good reasons for what takes place by the finale, there are also all the wet paper thin portrayals of both the terrorists and the common people that inhabit the story. Once the story takes us to a remote desert town, and Will's powers begin to fully manifest, there is a sinister air about the film that threatens to derail all that had come before. To make matters worse, the notion that technology empowers the poor in a way that is unbalanced is one that never feels any less creepy. While not stating it explicitly, there is a feeling throughout that such technological empowerment is akin to a zombie revolution; something also to be feared. And we haven't even covered the film's voice in who is to blame for all this. While technology is indeed an extension of who we are, the film seems more than comfortable in the blaming only two major things:

Both unchecked science & women.

And while the authorities inevitably swarm the burgeoning complex in the dust bowl, the film so vehemently wants us to question where our allegiances lie. Problems arise when it becomes clear that there is really noone here to identify with. And that becomes the largest thorn in TRANSCENDENCE's side. If the goal was to keep the perspective elusive until the very last minute, mission accomplished. With such one-dimensional characters and situations making the sound system rumble in the theater, the lack of focus never diminishes in annoyance. In a story regarding such heavy moral questions regarding existence and our evolving place in the scheme of life, an identification  figure is necessary. Sadly, Pfister and company never settle on one. Not one. And by the finale, hardly anything matters since caring has suddenly been removed from the art of filmmaking. The final product could not be more indifferent and illogical.

One cannot help but start wondering if Pfister did more second unit directing on The Dark Knight Rises than has been recorded. So much footage here echoes a lot of that film, and in the worst possible ways.

In the ever rapidly changing organic/tech landscape we are all living in, it is vital that our stories begin considering matters beyond fear. Jonze's Her, remains a shining example of this new philosophical direction. We live ever more connected to our devices than ever before. The world has begin to see incredible change. Not all positive, but nowhere near the melodramatic levels as displayed here. And the negative effects of this bold new realm cannot simply lie in the hands of the software itself. The heart of drama lies in our own failings, and in how we navigate life with ever new tools at our sides. TRANSCENDENCE implies our struggle to go beyond our limitations. And as a film that seems to rally against all the wondrous cultural, political, philosophical, and environmental changes that have come in the wake of the internet, it could not be a more misused title.

I hate this film.

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