Transcendence -2014-

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Directed by Wally Pfister. 119 mins.

Worth my time? No. (Seen at Arclight Hollywood)

This film pissed me off both because of its poor quality and because its poor box-office performance is gonna scare off filmmakers from exploring the Singularity. That’s a real bummer since the wildly divergent opinions of the Singularity’s likelihood, consequences, and morality would lend themselves to a dozen great films were the right people behind them. I was rooting for Wally Pfister to deliver the first great major motion picture on the subject, but his lack of directorial experience and Jack Paglen’s lazy screenplay keep Transcendence from ever coming close to meeting its potential.

Pfister has done great work as Christopher Nolan’s cinematographer for the last decade and a half, but much like early Coens DP Barry Sonnenfeld, he should probably stick to his day job. Transcendance is shot and directed like a bland summer action movie when the science fiction elements are its most interesting aspects. Duncan Jones, James Cameron, or even the Wachowskis would have spiced up this movie. Somebody has to tell directors that no one thinks that endless white lab corridors are sleek. They just look like offices – you know, the shit we wanna forget when we’re in a movie theater.

The plot holes are intolerable for a film that purportedly has something real and significant to say about societal and technological progression. The United States government, without a moment’s pause, joins forces with the same domestic terrorist group that kicks off the film with a mass-murder. Johnny Depp (who, as a man-turned-AI demigod, plays his most believable character in recent memory), has infinite omnipotent nanomachines at his disposal, but they can’t remotely upload hostile humans into his network.

Or can they? If Depp’s character refrains from assimilating people against their will, what’s the problem? The dude is fucking bringing people back to life for free. He’s healing the rainforests and removing excess greenhouse gases from the atmosphere for free. Must Uncle Sam fuck up every private venture of world-changing proportions?

The morals of this film are abhorrent. I believe in the virtues of personal liberty more than the average person, but come the fuck on. Aside from the invasion of personal privacy (not that much remains in this pre-Singularity world), there are no apparent downsides to Depp’s plot. Even is there are, how can they be worse than the downsides of permanently disabling the planets’ electrical and telecom systems?

The film’s heroes cut off Earth’s nose to spite Depp’s face. It makes no fucking sense. Though Pfister only shows a bit of the Collapse’s aftermath (people in Berkeley are bartering for used goods on the street, so apparently nothing has changed), I thought of these catastrophic effects after fifteen seconds of consideration:

– The instantaneous disappearance of all electronic financial markets would plunge the planet into a depression worse than a thousand Weimars.

– The inability to buy goods and the general lack of communication between agribusiness and vendors would cause a worldwide famine.

– Anyone who requires an electronic device to survive would die real bad-like.

– Modern medicine would be an impossibility.

Fuck you, Rebecca Hall and Paul Bettany.

(Seen and written on 2014-04-18)

Oblivion -2013-

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Directed by Joseph Kosinski. 124 mins.

Worth my time? No. (Seen at Arclight Hollywood)

 I’ll concede that Oblivion is a really nice-looking film. The visuals are a big step up from Joseph Kosinski’s Tron: Legacy, a drab, sterile film that wasn’t nearly as cool as it thought itself to be. Kosinski’s sophomore effort still features buckets of CGI, but it’s much brighter and aesthetically pleasing. Sure, the art direction lifts from tons of great sci-fi movies, but if you’re gonna copy a style, you may as well copy the best. I didn’t much mind the visual plagiarism.

 What I did mind is the shameless narrative plagiarism. Stealing the superficial, that I can forgive. Stealing the substantial is an altogether different offense. I spent most of my time in the theater counting the many superior films which Oblivion shamelessly plunders. The film’s premise is a direct knock-off of Duncan Jones’ brilliant and economical Moon (The main character is a maintenance technician who’s the only man on a hostile world, two weeks away from completing a years-long assignment to oversee machines harvesting fuel. But will an unexpected discovery make him question the truth? Yup).

 The list goes on and on. Whether it’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, THX 1138, The Omega Man, Alien, The Terminator, Independence Day, The Matrix Revolutions (yeah, the really terrible one), WALL-E (just swap Melissa Leo for Fred Willard), Never Let Me Go or something else (even video game franchises such as Halo and Gears of War are thrown into the mix), Oblivion never wasted a moment to remind me of films that I’d rather be watching.

 Well, maybe not Independence Day. Parts of it, perhaps. If you could isolate the Bill Pullman and Jeff Goldblum scenes and loop them for 124 minutes, then I’d be in business.

 Once again, Tom Cruise demonstrates how he delivers the best possible performance with every role he takes. He’s the last of a dying breed of larger-than-life actors. I mean it when I say that Cruise’s screen presence will be remembered with the likes of James Cagney, Humphrey Bogart, John Wayne, Charlton Heston, and pre-Pink Cadillac Clint Eastwood.

 My father recently said that he thought Cruise had entered his equivalent of Heston’s loud, bland filmography after age 50. If that speculation turns out to be true, I’ll be majorly bummed. I thought that last year’s Jack Reacher, while not a perfect film, was a good step in the right direction for Cruise. It was an action film, yes, but it was lean and gritty, and it wasn’t afraid to let Cruise show off his charm in long dialogue scenes. Hell, it wasn’t even afraid to show that Cruise is really damn short compared to the average full-grown man.

 Sadly, Oblivion is further evidence that my dear pappy is correct.

 – Aside: In all post-apocalyptic or distant-future sci-fi movies, the protagonist always has and cherishes some kitschy knickknack from our time. In the case of Oblivion, it’s an Elvis bobble-head figure that Tom Cruise’s character has named “Bob.”

 – Morgan Freeman is so fucking Morgan Freeman.

 – I still want Kosinski to continue directing films because eventually, he’ll make a movie with an epic-as-Hell score by Fuck Buttons. Tron: Legacy has Daft Punk, and Oblivion has M83, so it’s just a matter of time.

 (Seen and originally written on 2013-04-23)

Olympus Has Fallen -2013-

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Directed by Antoine Fuqua. 93 mins.

 Worth my time? No. (Seen at the Samuel Goldwyn Theater, AMPAS)

 As if we needed more evidence that Hollywood has yet to evolve the action genre beyond the greatness of Die Hard, this film provides it. Olympus Has Fallen is just another lone-wolf-rescues-hostages-in-captured-territory flick to throw on the heap. On the bright side, the film is somewhat inspiring – if people are willing to put their money behind something like this, than it’s at least somewhat plausible that my film concepts will make it to the silver screen one day.

 I have a friend who once worked with Millennium, one of the production companies behind Olympus Has Fallen. He told me that the company spends the lion’s share of its budget on casting, and throws the other departments the scraps that remain. After seeing Olympus Has Fallen, I’m more inclined than ever to believe him. The film includes major actors such as Gerard Butler, Aaron Eckhart, Morgan Freeman, Melissa Leo, Ashley Judd, Cole Hauser, Dylan McDermott, Radha Mitchell, Angela Bassett, and Robert Forster. I don’t know how embarrassed Paul Reubens felt when he was arrested back in ’91, but the film’s cast should feel twice as embarrassed.

 After the screening, there was a moderated discussion with the film’s writers, husband-and-wife duo  Creighton Rothenberger and Katrin Benedikt. They talked all about their transition from their corporate jobs back east to breaking into Hollywood, with all the ambition, disappointments, and excitement over the years. Their personal story was far more interesting than the movie I had just seen.

 (Seen and originally written on 2013-03-23)