April 21, 2014

Skin Games: 'Transcendance' and 'Under the Skin'

In 2013's Her, Joaquin Phoenix fell in love with an operating system voiced by Scarlet Johansson. Now, in 2014's Transcendence, Rebecca Hall falls in love with her dead husband (Johnny Depp), whose brain has been uploaded into a computer. He's HAL with heart, or Her but only, you know, Him. They're both scientists--named Will and Evelyn Caster--working on inventive new ways to merge humans and technology. They've got big, wide-eyed goals for ending poverty and healing the planet, and they see our coming evolution and the advancement of technology as two interwoven strands of the same all-consuming trajectory. But when Will is killed by some militant anti-technology types (who ironically use technology to carry out their terrorist schemes), Evelyn, in a fit of grief, decides to try and code his consciousness, making him come alive again on a computer screen. But of course, is that really him? Or is it merely a simulacra? How can anyone really be transferred from bodily and conscious and spiritual form to...virtual...form?

Transcendence purports to be a heavier look at the direction in which our technology is taking us. I say heavier because it appears to be standard science fiction action fare from the advertising, but in actuality it's going for the cerebral, prestige-picture aura of a 2001 or a Solaris. The movie is frustratingly talky, meandering for two hours (which seem much, much longer) as we watch the relationship between Will and Evelyn morph from one that is loving and intellectually robust into something truly menacing and disturbing. After Will becomes a computerized being, he develops seemingly boundless powers, including the ability to heal others and stop anyone or anything that gets in his way. Basically, he's magic. It makes everything so easy for this movie. Indeed, Transcendence adorns Will with some pretty convenient abilities: he hacks into Evelyn's bank account to fudge the numbers in her favor, then the two of them buy out a small, dying town in the desert where they set up a solar-powered underground operations center. Here Will can achieve the full magnitude of his powers. Unfortunately, they go to his "head" (which now has the ability to hack into any computer database and instantaneously heal any person or object under its control), and the dream of making a perfect world is transmuted into one of unmitigated authority over the planet and everyone on the planet. (This is why we just need to throw these damn computers out and go back to quill pens and horses.)

Yes, Transcendence is in some ways a welcome surprise: it's not a harrowing, dizzying type of movie that needs to move at a million miles a minute to keep viewers interested. I was on board with its desire to be deliberately paced. But The heavy ideas that director Wally Pfister and screenwriter Jack Paglen explore--which are interesting initially--weigh the movie down like millstones. Pfister is Christopher Nolan's director of photography, and this is his directing debut. This is also Jack Paglen's first writing credit that I'm aware of. Between the two of them, Transcendence is a murky affair indeed. There's no levity, no verve, no chemistry between the actors, and no feeling of empathy for them. Depp is so boring, so calm, that he really is just a newer version of the HAL computer from 2001. And even though Rebecca Hall registers well (she's a lovely actress), her character becomes increasingly irrational and unable to see the danger of Will's new role in her life. Because we're stuck primarily in her head, it's more than a little exasperating. (As another note of praise for Rebecca Hall, I instantly perked up when I realized she was in this movie. Sadly, the film around her is mostly a disappointment.)

I wasn't particularly enamored of Will Caster before his tragic death, let alone after. His emergence as a superhuman computer villain doesn't in fact change his tone or his demeanor. He's always vaguely disinterested and unfeeling, like Marlon Brando's Jor-el in Superman. (I don't know how Johnny Depp keeps getting these crummy roles: he's either reduced to playing yet another version of Jack Sparrow or this: dull and duller. Go watch him in Cry Baby or Ed Wood and see him come alive in a totally different way.)

And the supporting cast, which includes Morgan Freeman and Paul Bettany as Will and Evelyn's colleagues, Cillian Murphy as an FBI agent, and Kate Mara as one of the "terrorists" fighting the perceived technological takeover, doesn't get to do much interesting work. They fill their characters' shoes with bland competency. Morgan Freeman's presence in movies nowadays seems like a kind of strange penance from Hollywood to the audience. Freeman is less and less required to act or be interesting. He and Michael Caine have become the grand old gentlemen of the cinema, presiding over "important" Hollywood product to guarantee a certain return in revenue. (Come to think of it, this might be Christopher Nolan's fault.)

In the process of trying to be so heavy, Transcendence loses any sense of fun or wonder. Then again, is there any sense of wonder about the technological age? Isn't it essentially privileging "information" over mystery? The mysteries of how we got here and whether or not there's a god, and whether or not we have souls, and what happens to us when we die, are only tangentially addressed in this movie. Pfister and Paglen either don't know how or don't want to attend to them.

Speaking of Scarlet Johansson and attending to the mysteries of life, I managed to catch a screening of the terrifically bizarre new film Under the Skin, which is everything that Transcendence is not: mysterious, erotic, strange, beautiful, grotesque, horrifying, creepy, hypnotic. It's also confusing if you're trying to find your way through the narrative. Scarlet Johansson plays a Scottish woman named Laura. Well, actually, she's something more than a woman. Laura lures men into her apartment, ostensibly for sex, where she consumes them. It's a bit hard to define exactly what happens to the men, but we see it in several dreamlike sequences, each revealing a little bit more than the previous one: the men follow Laura's lead, removing items of clothing as they follow her like mindless sex-hungry zombies, until they are submerged into an invisible pool of water, which is where they remain indefinitely. All of this pulsates to some labored staccato violins and the blaring of a seamy synth. (The music is by Mychael Danna.)

You can't not be affected by this movie. As oddball as it is, it commands you to watch. I haven't seen a movie this visually arresting in a long time. Yes, I wanted more clarity, but I also appreciated its stubborn refusal to give things away. Is "Laura" some kind of martian? A psychic vampire? A little of both? It's all vaguely reminiscent of, among other things, Philip Kaufman's version of Invasion of the Body Snatchers, as well as a very obscure Victorian horror novel called The Beetle.

Under the Skin is the first sci-fi movie in a long time (that I can think of) that doesn't explain itself to death. It doesn't explain itself much at all. And while this was at times maddening, it was also kind of freeing. You watch Under the Skin, and you experience it, in a far more authentic way. It's crazy, ambiguous indie trash, and I couldn't take my eyes off it.

Based on the novel by Michael Faber. Directed by Jonathan Glazer, who co-wrote the script with Walter Campbell.

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