Transcendence has lofty goals for a high-profile blockbuster. It attempts to address a deep philosophical question – what, is it exactly that makes us human? – in a film that is part sci-fi adventure, part action-thriller and part ominous warning, as well as having a strong emotional arc that connects all of these different threads. In short, it’s the kind of film that attempts to both blow you away and make you think about the world around you, but with so many different elements competing for equal screen time, it doesn’t quite manage to transcend (sorry) the high expectations it establishes for itself, even if it does succeed in creating an exciting, entertaining experience.
The film centers on Dr. Will Caster (Johnny Depp), a brilliant scientist who has been working alongside his wife Evelyn (Rebecca Hall) to develop a sentient, omniscient artificial intelligence that will eventually know more about the universe than it is possible for humanity as a collective to ever understand. Their goal is to use this knowledge to cure disease and heal the planet, but the anti-technology terrorist organization RIFT wants to stop their work before it goes too far. However, their assassination attempt gives Evelyn and Will’s best friend Max (Paul Bettany) the push they need to finish his research, and they successfully manage to upload Will’s consciousness onto their AI.
It’s then that Transcendence really takes off, as the first act takes its time establishing the science behind the film and the laws in which everything functions. It’s a necessary, if somewhat slow, process, but it all pays off once Depp is off screen – or rather, on a computer screen (sorry, jeez) – and the stakes are raised, with Will quickly becoming smarter, more powerful, and more dangerous than Max and Evelyn could have anticipated.
Though Depp is the marquee name, he’s easily overshadowed by his co-stars, who carry the film’s emotional thread and do the bulk of the heavy lifting. The real star is Hall, whose blind devotion to her husband and his work slowly gives way to an understanding of the reality of what they’ve done. As Evelyn is truly the protagonist of the film, to whom we adhere the entire way, Hall is permitted to showcase the small, quiet changes that her character undergoes, perfectly befitting of the large span of time that the film covers. Though she's long been a underappreciated talent, giving wonderful performances in smaller films, her work here will hopefully earn her the kind of attention she deserves.
Warner Bros. Entertainment
But if the main character of the film is Evelyn, the one that the audience most identifies with is Max, who is torn between his devotion to his friends and his understanding of the dangers of letting things go too far. Bettany subtly plays out that internal conflict in all of his scenes, and even though Max is the least developed of the three main characters, he makes it easy to root for him. Depp, meanwhile, is relatively flat as Will, although he does have some truly terrifying moments as the AI, delivering his lines in a calm, soothing manner that hints at the inhuman coldness that lurks beneath the surface.
As the characters’ perspectives shift and change, so does your allegiance. Transcendence’s ability to manipulate the way the audience views these characters and their goals without making it obvious is one of the film’s strengths. It’s also the main source of tension, which make the few full-on action sequences even more exciting, as you’re never quite sure who you want to have the upper hand.
And yet, despite the edge-of-your-seat action, the engrossing personal relationships and interior conflicts and the beautifully shot scenery, there’s something missing from Transcendence to make it a truly satisfying experience, most likely due to the fact that the film attempts to pack so much into its 119-minute run time that certain threads are left hanging. At one point, the film jumps ahead in time by two years. While it’s necessary for the events of the third act to unfold properly, everything that isn’t Evelyn and Will's storyline gets short-changed, and it feels as if a massive piece of the plot gets left behind.
Similarly, many of the supporting characters are flimsy and one-note, with Kate Mara’s RIFT leader Bree suffering the most. The script does a cursory job of explaining her reasoning for starting the organization, but from there, she fades into the background, occasionally chiming in with a plan or a threat. Ultimately, Wally Pfister's directorial debut falls somewhat flat, and all of the stunning visuals and compelling performances can't quite make up for the fact that the pieces just don't click together in the right way.
But it's the pieces themselves — the minimalist computer labs contrasting with lush forests, the thrilling chases and the quiet character moments, and a truly exciting last-minute twist — that make Transcendence an experience well worth having. It might leave you a little cold in the end, but the journey you take to get there just about makes up for it.
David Mitchell's novel Cloud Atlas consists of six stories set in various periods between 1850 and a time far into Earth's post-apocalyptic future. Each segment lives on its own the previous first person account picked up and read by a character in its successor creating connective tissue between each moment in time. The various stories remain intact for Tom Tykwer's (Run Lola Run) Lana Wachowski's and Andy Wachowski's (The Matrix) film adaptation which debuted at the Toronto International Film Festival. The massive change comes from the interweaving of the book's parts into one three-hour saga — a move that elevates the material and transforms Cloud Atlas in to a work of epic proportions.
Don't be turned off by the runtime — Cloud Atlas moves at lightning pace as it cuts back and forth between its various threads: an American notary sailing the Pacific; a budding musician tasked with transcribing the hummings of an accomplished 1930's composer; a '70s-era investigatory journalist who uncovers a nefarious plot tied to the local nuclear power plant; a book publisher in 2012 who goes on the run from gangsters only to be incarcerated in a nursing home; Sonmi~451 a clone in Neo Seoul who takes on the oppressive government that enslaves her; and a primitive human from the future who teams with one of the few remaining technologically-advanced Earthlings in order to survive. Dense but so was the unfamiliar world of The Matrix. Cloud Atlas has more moving parts than the Wachowskis' seminal sci-fi flick but with additional ambition to boot. Every second is a sight to behold.
The members of the directing trio are known for their visual prowess but Cloud Atlas is a movie about juxtaposition. The art of editing is normally a seamless one — unless someone is really into the craft the cutting of a film is rarely a post-viewing talking point — but Cloud Atlas turns the editor into one of the cast members an obvious player who ties the film together with brilliant cross-cutting and overlapping dialogue. Timothy Cavendish the elderly publisher could be musing on his need to escape and the film will wander to the events of Sonmi~451 or the tortured music apprentice Robert Frobisher also feeling the impulse to run. The details of each world seep into one another but the real joy comes from watching each carefully selected scene fall into place. You never feel lost in Cloud Atlas even when Tykwer and the Wachowskis have infused three action sequences — a gritty car chase in the '70s a kinetic chase through Neo Seoul and a foot race through the forests of future millennia — into one extended set piece. This is a unified film with distinct parts echoing the themes of human interconnectivity.
The biggest treat is watching Cloud Atlas' ensemble tackle the diverse array of characters sprinkled into the stories. No film in recent memory has afforded a cast this type of opportunity yet another form of juxtaposition that wows. Within a few seconds Tom Hanks will go from near-neanderthal to British gangster to wily 19th century doctor. Halle Berry Hugh Grant Jim Sturgess Jim Broadbent Ben Whishaw Hugo Weaving and Susan Sarandon play the same game taking on roles of different sexes races and the like. (Weaving as an evil nurse returning to his Priscilla Queen of the Desert cross-dressing roots is mind-blowing.) The cast's dedication to inhabiting their roles on every level helps us quickly understand the worlds. We know it's Halle Berry behind the fair skinned wife of the lunatic composer but she's never playing Halle Berry. Even when the actors are playing variations on themselves they're glowing with the film's overall epic feel. Jim Broadbent's wickedly funny modern segment a Tykwer creation that packs a particularly German sense of humor is on a smaller scale than the rest of the film but the actor never dials it down. Every story character and scene in Cloud Atlas commits to a style. That diversity keeps the swirling maelstrom of a movie in check.
Cloud Atlas poses big questions without losing track of its human element the characters at the heart of each story. A slower moment or two may have helped the Wachowskis' and Tykwer's film to hit a powerful emotional chord but the finished product still proves mainstream movies can ask questions while laying over explosive action scenes. This year there won't be a bigger movie in terms of scope in terms of ideas and in terms of heart than Cloud Atlas.
A decade-long gap between sequels could leave a franchise stale but in the case of Men in Black 3 it's the launch pad for an unexpectedly great blockbuster. The kooky antics of Agent J (Will Smith) and Agent K (Tommy Lee Jones) don't stray far from their 1997 and 2002 adventures but without a bombardment of follow-ups to keep the series in mind the wonderfully weird sensibilities of Men in Black feel fresh Smith's natural charisma once again on full display. Barry Sonnenfeld returns for the threequel another space alien romp with a time travel twist — which turns out to be Pandora's Box for the director's deranged imagination.
As time passed in the real world so did it for the timeline in the world of Men in Black. Picking up ten years after MIB 2 J and K are continuing to protect the Earth from alien threats and enforce the law on those who live incognito. While dealing with their own personal issues — K is at his all-time crabbiest for seemingly no reason — the suited duo encounter an old enemy Boris the Animal (Jemaine Clement) a prickly assassin seeking revenge on K who blew his arm off back in the '60s. Their street fight is more of a warning; Boris' real plan is to head back in time to save his arm and kill off K. He's successful prompting J to take his own leap through the time-space continuum — and team up with a younger K (Josh Brolin) to put an end to Boris plans for world domination.
Men in Black 3 is the Will Smith show. Splitting his time between the brick personalities of Jones and Brolin's K Smith struts his stuff with all the fast-talking comedic style that made him a star in yesteryears. In present day he's still the laid back normal guy in a world of oddities — J raises an eyebrow as new head honcho O (Emma Thompson) delivers a eulogy in a screeching alien tongue but coming up with real world explanations for flying saucer crashes comes a little easier. But back in 1969 he's an even bigger fish out water. Surprisingly director Barry Sonnenfeld and writer Etan Cohen dabble in the inherent issues that would spring up if a black gentlemen decked out in a slick suit paraded around New York in the late '60s. A star of Smith's caliber may stray away from that type of racy humor but the hook of Men in Black 3 is the actor's readiness for anything. He turns J's jokey anachronisms into genuine laughs and doesn't mind letting the special effect artists stretch him into an unrecognizable Twizzler for the movie's epic time jump sequence.
Unlike other summer blockbusters Men in Black 3 is light on the action Sonnenfeld utilizing his effects budget and dazzling creature work (by the legendary Rick Baker) to push the comedy forward. J's fight with an oversized extraterrestrial fish won't keep you on the edge of your seat but his slapstick escape and the marine animal's eventual demise are genuinely amusing. Sonnenfeld carries over the twisted sensibilities he displayed in small screen work like Pushing Daisies favoring bizarre banter and elaborating on the kookiness of the alien underworld than battle scenes. MIB3's chase scene is passable but the movie in its prime when Smith is sparring with Brolin and newcomer Michael Stuhlbarg who steals the show as a being capable of seeing the future. His twitchy character keeps Smith and the audience on their toes.
Men in Black 3 digs up nostalgia I wasn't aware I had. Smith's the golden boy of summer and even with modern ingenuity keeping it fresh — Sonnenfeld uses the mandatory 3D to full and fun effect — there's an element to the film that feels plucked from another era. The movie is economical and slight with plenty of lapses in logic that will provoke head scratching on the walk out of the theater but it's also perfectly executed. After ten years of cinematic neutralizing the folks behind Men in Black haven't forgotten what made the first movie work so well. After al these years Smith continues to make the goofy plot wild spectacle and crazed alien antics look good.