REVIEW: Transcendence

8 11 2014

As Christopher Nolan’s director of photography, Wally Pfister has lensed some of the most iconic images of recent cinematic history.  Be it the field of lightbulbs in “The Prestige,” the stairwell in “Inception,” or practically any image in “The Dark Knight,” he certainly knows how to captivate with the visual language of film.

Transcendence” finds Pfister behind the camera calling the shots, not merely setting them up, for the first time.  While no ultimate judgment should be rendered on a filmmaker after just one feature, Pfister might not want to give up his day job as Christopher Nolan’s cinematographer just yet.  His debut is a start-to-finish mess, mostly because of its almost incoherently assembled script.

The film begins rather simply and intelligibly with Johnny Depp’s Dr. Will Caster, a scientist attempting to create a fully sentient computer, getting assassinated by a radical anti-technology group R.I.F.T.  But once he dies and his consciousness is uploaded into a computer, “Transcendence” shatters into fragments.  Only Caster’s wife (Rebecca Hall) stays loyal; meanwhile, the rest of the supporting cast spreads out into multiple subplots that divide attention and diminish effectiveness.

Caster’s research companion Max (Paul Bettany) defects to join R.I.F.T. under the leadership of Bree (Kate Mara).  The G-men of the FBI (Cillian Murpy, Morgan Freeman) are also making moves of their own to stop the supercomputer.  Meanwhile, Caster’s digital brain grows stronger by the minute … so be very afraid, because technology is scary!

Pfister is not even able to translate this technophobia into any memorable images to at least portray visually what the story is unable to communicate narratively.  He begins “Transcendence” with a shot of broken cell phones lying around, practically begging to be considered a zeitgeist film.  But of all the sentiments Pfister invokes, not one of them comes even remotely close to resembling the film’s titular sensation.  He certainly knows how to make noise, but hopefully in his next film, Pfister will actually have something interesting to say.  C-1halfstars

Random Factoid #353

16 07 2010

To your left is a sight that I’ve been waiting to look at for nearly a year – my ticket for “Inception.”  In a little less than four hours, I will be basking in the glory of Christopher Nolan’s latest feature.  At the time this post is published, I would be in the theater at the midnight showing of the movie.  But life has a way of surprising us.  If everything went according to plan, it wouldn’t be life.

So I guess I’ll use this factoid to kind of wrap-up everything leading up to “Inception.”  Thanks to everyone this week that has been reading all of my reviews of Nolan’s films; I’ve been seeing the stats and reading the comments, and everything has just been incredible.

You may recall that back in April, I described my desire to avoid all things “Inception” leading up to the release.  I’ll quote that post, Random Factoid #275, here:

I am attempting to do the impossible: avoid the media blitz surrounding Christopher Nolan’s “Inception” and walk into the theater on July 16th without knowing anything about the plot.  I am not going to read plot summaries, watch trailers, or read any sort of specific review.

I am prepared to do whatever it takes not to have this movie spoiled.  I will start bringing either headphones or earplugs to tentpole summer movies where previews will most assuredly play.  If I see any feature on the movie, I will shield my eyes and go away.

First of all, I want to issue a blanket apology to any friend of mine who put up with my obsession for the last few months.  Particular apologies go out to anyone who has seen a movie with me, where during an “Inception” trailer, I would plug my ears, close my eyes, and hum to drone out the noise.  This was a good way to clear out the other folks on my row, but my friends never abandoned me.  Another apology to anyone who has watched TV with me because I would often demand a channel change when a commercial for “Inception” came on.

But hopefully my persistence pays off tonight.  I have not watched a trailer since the teaser, and I know next to nothing about the plot.  I avoided looking at posters and slogans, didn’t look at any plot descriptions, and have only seen about 10 stills from the movie.  I think that’s pretty impressive.

And I’m so ready to absorb the movie that I’ve bought several magazines with spotlights on “Inception,” including the American Cinematographer, which features a discussion with DP Wally Pfister.  (Trade tidbit: DP is short for “director of photography,” which is another way of saying cinematographer.)

And all my technology has been decked out in “Inception.”  Both my phone background and computer desktop are artwork from the movie.

Oscar Moment: “Inception”

13 07 2010

Countdown to “Inception” is at T-minus 3 days.  I haven’t bought my ticket to go at midnight yet, but I plan on doing so today.

But some people don’t have to wait.  There are plenty of critics and Oscar pundits who have seen Christopher Nolan’s latest film, and I hate them all.  Just kidding!  Judging from their reactions, we have a serious Oscar contender on our hands.  The movie currently sits at a very healthy 97% on Rotten Tomatoes.  The one rotten review as of yet comes from New York Magazine‘s David Edelstein, who even concedes, “Nolan, who wrote the script, thinks like a mechanical engineer, and even when you can’t follow what’s happening, you can admire in theory the multiple, synchronized narrative arcs…”  Edelstein’s review brings down the Metacritic rating for “Inception” down 20 points, from a 97 to 77.

Although it may be too early to call, I think the critics are going to ga-ga for this movie.  All of Nolan’s movies have been certified fresh on Rotten Tomatoes, and I don’t think this will be any different.  Even if a sudden onslaught of negative reviews comes out of nowhere, as I talked about in my Oscar Moment on “Shutter Island,” there have been non-certified fresh Best Picture nominees.

It was only two years ago that “The Reader” with a disappointing 61% managed to steal a Best Picture slot from Nolan’s own “The Dark Knight,” which scored an impressive 94%.  Redemption will definitely be on voters’ minds as massive backlash to the Best Picture snub was very vocal.  So vocal, in fact, that it may be the biggest catalyst in the Academy’s decision to expand the field of Best Picture nominees from five to ten.  Even AMPAS President Sid Ganis said, “I’d be lying if I said ‘The Dark Knight’ didn’t come up in the discussion [to change the number of nominees].”  So a Best Picture nomination for “Inception” would be the first step in healing the wounds caused by their omission.

I think a Best Picture nomination is in the bag.  Judging from what I’ve read, the movie is good enough to get it on its own merit; the atonement factor only helps.  Film School Rejects today went as far as to predict the film’s victory in Best Picture.  Here’s some of what Cole Abaius wrote:

… In addition to being a better film than The Dark Knight, it’s also more traditionally Oscar-worthy while still being cutting edge. Theoretically, TDK was choked out of the running because it was “just a Superhero movie,” but there’s no similar sentiment here. It’s a classic-style hero’s journey featuring five Oscar nominees and two Oscar winners in front of the camera …

Kris Tapley at In Contention was a little more cautiously optimistic:

The first thing that comes to mind when I think of the history of Best Picture nominees is the fact that, on some level, they are fairly undemanding efforts.  There’s a pattern of simplicity of narrative, regardless of genre.  Now, most seem to think the general positive assessment Nolan’s film has received should be enough to get it into a field of 10 nominees, but I’m a touch skeptical.  “Inception” is anything but undemanding …

We all remember Nolan’s superhero epic did not make the cut with five slots.  And the thought process for some is, well, it’s time for AMPAS to kiss and make up.  Except that’s not the typical AMPAS thought process, and certainly not for a still youngish talent like Nolan.  I’m not here to piss in anyone’s cornflakes, but I just don’t think anyone can simplify the argument to, “It’s sure to get in with 10.”

And given that people will undoubtedly chalk up the success of “Inception” to writer/director Christopher Nolan, he will probably go along for the ride and receive a Best Director nomination.  Even if Best Picture hopes fade over the next few months, Nolan could easily stay in the discussion for director based on the visual style the movie possesses.  The decade has seen plenty of lone director nods for stylistic triumphs – David Lynch for “Mulholland Drive,” Pedro Almodovar for “Talk to Her,” Fernando Mierelles for “City of God,” Julian Schnabel for “The Diving Bell and the Butterfly” – although it’s probably less likely with the expanded field.

The screenplay should find a home in the Best Original Screenplay based on the originality and creativity of its premise, even if Best Picture and Best Director fail.  Nolan wrote “Inception” himself, and he has a prior nomination from the writer’s branch for “Memento.”  And that was Christopher Nolan before he was Christopher Nolan.

Leonardo DiCaprio could be a contender in Best Actor.  He’s had a great year between this and “Shutter Island,” and particularly if the field is weak, he could sneak in with a nomination as a reward for a good body of work in 2010.  The voters would probably have to rally around this movie, though, to get him in and prevent vote splitting.

But the movie’s surest bets are easily in the technical categories.  Best Visual Effects should be a slam dunk, as should nominations in the sound categories.  I can see Best Film Editing being a very strong possibility, and Wally Pfister’s cinematography, which has earned three nominations for work on Nolan’s past movies, could easily be nominated.

In three days, we will be able to discuss “Inception” and its chances, not just speculate.  Until then, we wait, some more eagerly than others.

BEST BETS FOR NOMINATIONS: Best Picture, Best Director, Best Original Screenplay, Best Visual Effects, Best Film Editing, Best Cinematography, Best Sound Mixing, Best Sound Editing