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.
Paramount via Everett Collection
We all know the saying about how you can't pick your relatives but you can pick your friends. Unfortunately, in high school, most people are limited to those other poor souls that are slouching through the halls to get from class to class.
Every teen movie made has seemingly adhered to some form of the cliques that occur in high school, those groupings based on looks, interests or intelligence that make up the social caste system. What if, however, you could make your own clique, using characters from those films that fit into those stereotypical profiles? It would certainly have made for a more entertaining high school experience, as well as at least one killer party. Who would we pick? Here's our choices...
VIEW GALLERY: The Ultimate Teen Movie High School Clique
Focus Features via Everett Collection
Ugh... Mondays, am I right? Every week kicks off with that trademark despair so expertly articulated in Mike Judge's Office Space: you've got a case of the Mondays. Luckily, Netflix has you covered, with plenty of pick-me-up comedies to make the worst day of the week a bit more jolly. To start off our Netflix Hand-Picked Flix recommendations, we suggest ParaNorman.
Norman (Kodi Smit-McPhee) is an average, horror movie-obsessed kid... except for the fact that he has a unusual talent: he can communicate with the dead. Although he's been able to befriend the ghosts that haunt his town, Blithe Hollow, his power mostly causes him trouble, and results in him being bullied by Alvin (Christopher Mintz-Plasse) and disappointing his father (Jeff Garlin). However, on the 300th anniversary of the exceution of the town's witch, Norman's ability means that he is the only person who can stop the dead from rising from their graves and save the town from the witch's return. With his best friend Neil (Tucker Albrizzi) along for the ride, Norman must use the thing that makes him so different in order to protect the people he loves.
At its heart, ParaNorman is a story about learning to accept people for their difference and not letting fear take over your life, told in a way that is smart, tense and unbelievably funny. Thanks to the incredibly animated stop-motion, watching Norman and the people of Blithe Hollow come together is just as compelling as the intense, exciting action sequences, which feature effects that are just as impressive as a big-budget blockbuster. Smit-McPhee is endlessly charming as Norman, and Albrizzi plays earnest in the most hilarious, heart-warming way, but the cast of ParaNorman is so good that it's equally worth watching just for John Goodman's small role as Norman's crazy Uncle Prederghast. Both action-packed and goofy, it's the perfect feel-good movie to cheer you up and help you amke it though the week. And who know, it might even make dealing with your weird co-workers a little bit easier.
You can stream ParaNorman instantly on Netflix, and make sure to check back tomorrow for our recommendations for the perfect Bluesday Tuesday movie.
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.
1. Kick-Ass 2 Can Only Be a Good Thing.
As a longtime proponent of Matthew Vaughn (well, since 2004) I'm happy to hear we're going to get a sequel. I would guess that Nic Cage will have less involvement, which I'm disheartened to say is a good thing at this point in his career, though ideally they'd find some method for writing off Mintz-Plasse too. I liked him in Superbad and Role Models but the material seemed slightly out of his wheelhouse in Kick-Ass. The film is currently ranked 186th all time on IMDB, and it very nearly cracked $100m at the worldwide box office despite being initially left for dead.
For my money, Hit-Girl is the most innovative character to hit the screen this year. While one could, if one were so inclined, point out a few obvious parallels between the mayhemic Japanese film Battle Royale and Kick-Ass my counterargument would be that Hit Girl's reign of destruction occurs in a largely realistic world. Batle Royale definitely skews more Running Man. Second place on the iconic characters of 2010? Probably Gru from Despicable Me. Hard not to love that guy.
2. Breaking Dawn Gets Graphic?
Word has come down from screenwriter Melissa Rosenberg that they might attempt to show the infamous "birthing scene." This would be an unequivocal mistake. For those not familiar with the Twilight franchise, Breaking Dawn is the madcap finale to the series wherein Bella (spoiler alert) gives birth to a half human, half vampire baby who proceeds to break Bella’s ribs, causing massive internal and external bleeding. Clearly, it's quite the scene. But Twilight has managed to keep the gore down to a minimum, probably to satisfy the core fanbase.
The scene, even in the books, is slightly out of place. Stephenie was clearly feeling her writing oats after the success of the first books and wanted to try a small tonal shift which indicated how much Bella was willing to sacrifice for Edward. But things quickly shift back to non-violent methods, and by the end of the books some fans were even complaining Meyers went too pacifist. What's this all add up to? Well, it would be incredibly easy to sucker in an audience emotionally with this scene, and Rosenberg's Dexter work (and heck, even her Party of Five work) has left her with a deft and capable hand to do just that. But it's the wrong route, especially given the overall story arc and themes presented. This isn't vamp horror, it's a modern romance, and the truly gnarly bloodletting is best left on the cutting room floor.
3. The Meta Effect.
Our friend Adam Quigley at /Film has an interesting article on the overall self-awareness of cinema these days. Citing all levels of cinema, from genius works like Hot Fuzz and Inglourious Basterds to clear parody a la Vampires Suck, Quigley has managed to form a cogent argument on the end of true creativity in cinema. Simply put, if everything references everything else than nothing can be truly new.
So far as that goes, it's an interesting observation, and I'd surmise much of it has to do with the massive communications we're all exposed to on a daily basis. New ideas don't creep out because you're exposed too many old ideas every single day. There are 35 ways for people to reach you, and you can't create in a vacuum anymore. The stoic and hermit creator is gone, replaced by the overly connected and self-referential schmoozer. However, I wonder if we're missing a more elemental point here, referred to by Joseph Campbell's Hero With a 1000 Faces work. Essentially the theory holds that disparate cultures developed eerily similar mythologies. One could make the argument that there are only so many stories to tell, and the current vibe of "been there, done that" is more an indicator of the wealth of stories we have access too ... and not the overall creative level of the medium itself.
4. Liking The Look of Easy A!
I've seen the Easy A trailer half a dozen times, with half a dozen different people, and the reaction has been uniformly positive. When is the last great high school comedy we had? Okay, I'll cede Superbad but that was Apatow raunchiness, not Election or Mean Girls subversion. And Emma Stone feels ready for a big move, as we're in need of a new Julia Roberts. Could this be a rare September classic? Here's hoping.
On that note, I hope you have a weekend devoid of labor.
Check out last week's Movie Musings here
Laremy is the lead critic and senior producer for a website named Film.com. He's also available on Twitter.