Transcendence, et al.
There are so many movies opening this weekend, both wide and at select venues that if I wrote about all of them the pages would reach from here to the Moon and halfway back. That would be so much material that it would take the reader the better part of this year to read same. If you believe Heaven is real, then you’d believe this paragraph.
Transcendence is a film where Johnny Depp becomes, well, God. That’s not really a stretch; there are actually a lot of people that think Depp is a God (just ask your girlfriend). In fact a few years ago I was in Las Vegas during Halloween and 90% of people wearing costumes were dressed as Edward Scissorhands or Jack Sparrow. It left little leeway for those wearing Ghost Buster or Kick Ass outfits.
Depp plays an AI research scientist seen at the beginning of Transcendence addressing a conference along with his wife (Rebecca Hall). An assassination attempt by neo-Luddite terrorists leaves little choice but to upload Depp’s consciousness to a powerful yet experimental computer. To cut to the chase, Depp, or his consciousness if you prefer, becomes a sentient electronic being that can access the entire internet instantly in real time. Cillian Murphy, Kate Mara, Cole Hauser, Morgan Freeman, Paul Bettany and Clifton Collins Jr. co-star.
The new Depp controls matter and life using nanotechnology to literally rebuild anything that can be destroyed, from solar panels to human cells. The neo-Luddites find themselves now united with government agencies. In a moment from Transcendence that’s not as ridiculous as it sounds a reanimated maintenance guy (talking in Depp’s voice) tells his wife (Hall) they should make love. She’s not having any part of it.
There are also hints of Saul Bass’ Phase IV, a ‘70s movie where the ants form a communal mind and attack scientists at an isolated desert research center. In Transcendence there is a similar isolated town where Depp and company set up shop, which in fact also reminds of a New Mexico town on the edge of the desert in the first Thor. We might as well throw in Colossus: The Forbin Project (1970) where an American defense computer merges with a similar Soviet computer and becomes sentient and tries to control the world.
Transcendence takes itself seriously enough to give the audience a good ride and even ends up being more of a sci-fi love story than a tract against technology. After all we’re all stardust, baby. Wally Pfister steps from behind the camera (he won as Oscar® for shooting Inception) to make his directorial debut. Pfister wisely defers to a talented team of collaborators, seen in such choices as Chris Seagers production design that emphasizes vast underground labs, Jess Hall’s cinematography that treats the colors of black and white with respect, and Mychael Danna’s score that alternates between Hans Zimmer bombast and even borrows four notes from 12 Years A Slave at one crucial moment.
I want movies to wow me with their dialogue like the way Preston Sturges movies do. Occasionally I will catch a film that uses clever words in clever ways. Recently watching Woody Allen’s Anything Else (2003) I noted the following words just flowing like a good wine from the mouths of the characters: polymath, typhlosis, maladroit, porcine, homunculus, and bivalve. This really has nothing to do with anything but you have to admit it would be killer to throw one of the above words into a comment at the next reception you attend.
Recently people sought out my opinion of the film Enemy because they thought that film was impenetrable. If Enemy gave you pause deciphering its meaning then Under the Skin will put you in a dervish spin of confusion. Director Jonathan Glazer (Birth, Sexy Beast) and Scarlett Johansson offer up an exceptional bit of sci-fi masquerading as a philosophical look at the relation between the sexes.
The beginning of this film is pure Gasper Noé in terms of imagery. A series of cylinder shaped objects move into perfect position with orifice type spaces.
Rather than go through a blow-by-blow description of scenes, like a guy on a motorcycle pulling over on a highway, dismounting, walking into the weeds and dragging something back, or the endless series of shots of a woman driving a van from different angles, let me tell you about the atmosphere Under the Skin produced. You know how when you’re dreaming and you wake up and remember the last bit of the dream, and then you somehow fall back asleep and manage to continue the thread of the dream? Under the Skin felt like a dream all the way through and indeed the feeling makes you watch the movie unfold in a damn near hypnogogic state.
First of all there are lots of landscapes of a chilly Scotland. There are beach scenes with beautiful fog floating over the sand and high cliffs but yet equally eerie and threatening crashing waves. The previously hinted at shots of ScarJo endlessly driving repeated like a Last Year at Marienbad mantra. Is ScarJo a lonely woman on the prowl who picks men up and disposes of them? Perhaps the first reel would have you believe that. Then some, shall we say, metaphysical events unfold that lead the viewer to surmise that things are unfolding in a fifth dimension.
There are some images that I wouldn’t dare call surreal when they’re really fantastical. The storyline is not surreal but rather a series of progressive tableaus that establish a kind of alien abduction, with a lot of sex. Yes you see ScarJo like you’ve never seen her before but the nudity never seems erotic as much as a process that renders the viewer a participant in the examination of the human race.
Even as you’re drifting upwards into the sky as a vapor of smoke you come to terms with the falling snowflakes that represent an eternal return of life. Under the Skin is not for the average bear but for the person who thinks outside of the box.
There are also a couple of docs that deserve scrutiny. The Final Member tells the story of a museum in Iceland dedicated to penises of mammals. They only member this club/org doesn’t have is the human one. Two men are potential donors and their story provides much of the heft on display. The Final Member unwinds at the Alamo Drafthouse Vintage Park.
Jodorowsky’s Dune delves into the never-made film that might have been. Alejandro Jodorowsky owned the movie rights to the science fiction novel Dune for a lengthy period in the 1970s, and after the cult success of Jodorowsky’s El Topo and The Holy Mountain he was certain to land a deal to direct this seminal sci fi tale.
JD takes the aud behind the scenes with anecdotes of talent involved including Salvador Dalí, Orson Welles, and artists/designers such as H.R. Giger and Moebius. What a film this would’ve been as recounted through the interviews and storyboard drawings. In the end we’re reminded of scenes that pop up in films like the opening sequence of Contact that are right out of Jodo’s production design. Unreeling exclusively at the Sundance Cinemas Houston.
- Michael Bergeron