Review: Transcendence (dir. Wally Pfister, 2014)

Transcendence is, in theory, the sort of film I ought to like. It’s a science fiction film with big ideas about the increasingly blurry line between humanity and technology, and it addresses the question of whether some creations can ever outgrow or improve upon their creators. The film also has some fantastic production design. It’s a treat to look at.

But in execution, the film — the first to be written by Jack Paglen and the first to be directed by Wally Pfister, a cinematographer who has shot all but one of Christopher Nolan’s films — leaves a lot to be desired, almost as though the ideas at play were simply too big for the filmmakers to really get a handle on.

Most significantly, the film sets up a conflict but can’t decide whose side it’s on — which makes for a curiously subversive bit of entertainment but also leaves the story feeling quite muddled, especially in its final moments.

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Movies that flip their source material on its head

My friend and colleague Steven D. Greydanus tweeted the other day that the new Lone Ranger movie is not just one of those films that doesn’t “get” its source material but, rather, it is made by “people who do understand the source material—and dislike it.” He has since noted that this point is also made by New York Times critic A.O. Scott, who wrote that the film is “an ambitious movie disguised as a popcorn throwaway, nothing less than an attempt to revise, reinvigorate and make fun of not just its source but also nearly every other western ever made.”

This got me wondering about other films that have knowingly inverted their source material, rather than adapted it, per se — i.e., films that have explicitly challenged the themes of their source material. Two examples came to mind immediately.

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Your Chip Is Showing / Four recent films show a battle for control among men, women, and machines.

Film is perhaps the most technological of artforms, and it relies increasingly on computers for its simulations of the real world. Not surprisingly, films have also expressed concern over the directions in which our technology is taking us, and these days, as spyware snoops around our hard drives and governments assume more powers unto themselves, the issue that crops up repeatedly in films is that of control. Who has it? Who uses it? And to what degree have the devices we created to serve us become our masters?

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Review: The Bourne Supremacy (dir. Paul Greengrass, 2004)

If we forget The Chronicles of Riddick — and odds are you had until I mentioned it just now — this is turning out to be a good summer for sequels, from big-budget blockbusters like Spider-Man 2 to small art-house films like Before Sunset. Somewhere between the sensibilities of those two flicks lies The Bourne Supremacy, an intelligent, action-packed thrill ride which also has the documentary-like feel of a European travelogue. Unlike, say, the James Bond films, which are loaded with product placements and pyrotechnics, and which gravitate toward famous tourist attractions like the Millennium Dome and the Eiffel Tower, the Jason Bourne movies are filmed in a more naturalistic style, and are grounded in more mundane yet familiar locations: train stations, hotels, and housing projects that are believable precisely because they don’t seem to have been dressed up for a movie.

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Review: I, Robot (dir. Alex Proyas, 2004)

The movies have not been kind to Isaac Asimov. He may have been one of the most celebrated science fiction writers of the past half-century, but very few of his stories have attained that particular form of popular validation that comes from being adapted for the big screen — and this despite the fact that movie after movie has been based on the works of his contemporaries, including Ray Bradbury, Arthur C. Clarke and especially Philip K. Dick. On the rare occasion that a major studio has given one of Asimov’s stories the green light, the story in question has usually been massaged into something rather formulaic and at odds with his sensibilities. Five years ago, Bicentennial Man was turned into a regular Robin Williams schmaltzfest, albeit one with loads of visual effects. And now, I, Robot has been turned into a regular Will Smith action movie, also loaded with effects.

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