18 April 2014

The Road to a Blockbuster: Transcendence Shoots for the Brains

Today marks the release of Wally Pfister's Transcendence (2014), which when I first heard about it seemed to be positioned as this big landmark moment in sci-fi, something great, interesting, and cerebral to set the genre forward in an age where moviegoers seem more inclined to chase big flashy adventure pieces. From an examination of the marketing material, hype, and advanced reviews, though, none of this seems likely.
"Johny! Transcend me!"

Transcendence is funny. It's trying so desperately to be taken seriously, but by now everything cool it's trying to do with its cast and identity is a huge joke. It's boasting a big time get in Johnny Depp, who for sure remains one of the last true A-Listers, but a close look at his recent filmography reveals him more as a Supporting Actor All-Star in these big studio films.

It's a sort of curious phenomenon. When he's leading smaller flicks like, jeez pick one, Ed Wood (1994), Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (1998), Chocolat (2000), Finding Neverland (2004), or even The Rum Diary (2011), he's outstanding. His supporting turns in big crazy blockbusters where he puts on these really outlandish characters also range from the innovative (Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl [2003]) to the tired (Alice in Wonderland [2010], On Stranger Tides [2011]) to the underrated but probably racist (The Lone Ranger [2013]). While most of these made enough ridiculous money to see him as a pretty bankable star, when you add in The Tourist (2010) and Dark Shadows (2012), suddenly Depp as a leading man in big blockbusters seems like a bad idea.

His schtick just isn't as fresh as it used to be. Jack Sparrow was an incredible creation. Since then he's relied more on make-up and funny voices than any real heart. That's not to say he hasn't made good films - I'd still consider Rango (2011) one of the best animated films of the past ten years, but we didn't see his face on screen. So, how does that affect Transcendence?

It's not like Depp is going white-face for this. He seems to be more or less a normal dude, who I guess eventually becomes a brilliant technological singularity. Reminds me of Lucy (2014), which hasn't actually come out yet. But they apparently share the same Morgan Freeman, who more or less has settled into a "explains things with an incredible voice" role as much as Liam Neeson has settled into a "kick anyone's ass anywhere" role as of late. Everything about this cast seems so done to death, which is a shame, because the premise really isn't.

That's not to say that people will find the premise interesting. The concept of a human-computer singularity is actually fairly fascinating and prescient in today's culture of technological dependence. It's inherently erudite and not really the typical big summer smash 'em up material. I suppose that's why it's getting an April release.

Because of that April release I can't help think back to the similar vehicle from last year, Oblivion (2013), which featured heady material, a genuine A-Lister, a fledgling director, and a fairly shitty story. Advance reviews of Transcendence pits it at touching on interesting themes but completely falling apart in its narrative, which is really frustrating. Films that attempt really esoteric subject matter should be technically good films - why leave all the genius on screen instead of behind it?
I knew I had seen this premise before...

Oblivion brings me to another good point: it seems that every movie like this trying to be cool boils its core concepts down to one neat-sounding word. This dates back to Inception (2010). We get Oblivion, Divergent (2014), Transcendence, and then Nolan comes back round again with Interstellar (2014). For as much as Chris Nolan is a genius filmmaker, his influence on others, notably his boy Wally, who has been his longtime cinematographer before stepping up to the mantle directing Transcendence, has been a bore. Other directors under his wing like Zack Snyder seem to only understand the superficial trappings of his big budget work, which is just the arbitrarily dark tortured egos of male protagonists, usually over some deceased woman in his fridge. There tends to inspire an overwhelming sense of maudlin and more derogatory, an undue self-importance to the films of his imitators that just makes for shitty cinema.

Transcendence is trying to do all of this, and as a result becomes more a facsimile of a film rather than an interesting or original piece of art. This is Oblivion all over again, with an MIT veneer in place of Tom Cruise's Yankees cap. Because of this fact, it ought to fail to connect with audiences - the people don't mind derivative works, but they need to buy into the flashy ideas at work. Just look at The Avengers (2012), an incredibly derivative film masked by shiny explosions and Galaga jokes. Billion dollars. Transcendence isn't there.

So, see what you will today - Summer already started with Captain America: The Winter Soldier (after whining about both ends of the superhero spectrum - the flash of Whedon and the dreariness of Nolan, yes, Cap 2 is the kind of blockbuster I like), and it ought to remain that way until someone else swings along to fight electricity.

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