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Friday, 25 April 2014

Transcendence

(M) ★★★

Director: Wally Pfister.

Cast: Johnny Depp, Rebecca Hall, Paul Bettany, Morgan Freeman, Cillian Murphy, Clifton Collins Jr, Kate Mara.

"You can piss up a rope/you can put on your shoes/hit the road/get truckin'...."
If you believe the movies, artificial intelligence has got it in for us.

From HAL in 2001: A Space Odyssey to Terminator's Skynet, these sentient slices of silicone tend to value their own existence over that of humanity, Asimov's first law of robotics be damned.

Transcendence, the directorial debut of Christopher Nolan's regular cinematographer Wally Pfister, delves into the theoreticals and hypotheticals of AI in interesting ways, raising plenty of questions along the way about where this technological superhighway might lead.

But the film lacks the foreboding or tension that usually comes with going head-to-hard drive with a computerised combatant, leaving its all-star cast to get hysterical while we wonder whether it's all really that bad.

The potentially big bad bunch of bytes in Transcendence is Will Caster (Depp), an artificial intelligence (AI) expert who is shot by a group of anti-technology radicals.

In desperation, his wife Evelyn (Hall) and their friend Max (Bettany) upload Will's consciousness into their AI supercomputer. From there it's just a skip and jump to the internet and soon Will is everywhere; an omnipresent, omniscient and omnipotent force that can finally help Evelyn fulfil her dreams of changing the world.

But is AI Will really evil? Much of the film's final half is dedicated to the battle to shut Will down, but the film's tone and atmosphere is strangely devoid of tension.


This is partly because AI Will appears to be more of a benevolent god than a malevolent one. His actions appear completely altruistic throughout the story, yet everyone is busy looking at the 'what if?' while running around yelling 'we have to shut it down!'.

It's as if an essential part of the plot has been missed or skimmed over - yes, things get creepy, but where's the dramatic tension and the call to conflict? The film rushes to its final showdown after setting a languid pace for the first hour, and something has been left out in the process.

Having said that, maybe I'm looking at this the wrong way. Who's the big bad here - the AI making the world a better place or the stupid humans afraid of change? Is this why the tension and drama is manufactured or lacking - because we're "programmed" to barrack for the stupid humans?

The ideas at play in Transcendence - the old touchstones of man vs machine, evolution, the dangers and morals of technology, and gods and mortals - are the highlight of the film, along with a strong cast and some beautiful cinematography. Given Pfister's work on Nolan's Batman trilogy and Inception, it's no surprise Transcendence looks amazing, and the director certainly takes his time to focus on abstract close-ups as part of the film's symbolism.

Hall does great work, as does Bettany, and everyone else is serviceable. The only mis-step is Depp, whose subdued turn might perplex some people. For someone accused of hamming it up way too much lately (The Lone Ranger, Dark Shadows, Pirates Of The Caribbean, Alice In Wonderland), Depp's performance is so underplayed as to be almost non-existent. If nothing else, it's unexpected.

Transcendence is enjoyable but with this cast and these ideas, it's a missed opportunity. The possibilities of its story are frightening and intense, but the film never feels like either of these things.

Friday, 4 April 2014

Captain America: The Winter Soldier

(M) ★★★★

Director: Joe and Anthony Russo.

Cast: Chris Evans, Scarlett Johansson, Samuel L Jackson, Sebastian Stan, Anthony Mackie, Robert Redford, Frank Grillo.

Insert joke about farting in elevators here.
NINE films into Marvel’s Cinematic Universe, and this megafranchise shows no signs of slowing.

The only perceptible weakness has been getting their sequels – Iron Man 2 and 3, and Thor 2 – to match up to the incredibly high standards of their predecessors.

It’s a tough ask, but one they ably meet in Captain America 2, with the resulting film that rarest of movie beasts – a sequel as good as the original.

Of course, this is more than just a sequel to the 2011 debut of supersoldier Steve Rogers (Evans). It follows on from the hero team-up The Avengers and makes more than a few passing references to the larger Marvel universe, continuing to weave its interconnected web, which fans are finding almost as enjoyable as the films themselves.

But with an ever-expanding universe, there’s a danger that the standalone character films could become redundant in a post-Avengers world – when facing peril, why not just call up Iron Man, Hulk and Thor to lend a hand?

Thankfully, this isn’t a problem in Captain America 2, where a subterfuge-reliant plot means things move too fast and too secretively to wonder why Rogers isn’t calling his superpowered buddies to lend a hand.

Not that he’s alone in his mission fighting the film’s Big Bad (the less you know about the actual what and who of the plot and its villains, the better for your enjoyment). The Black Widow aka Natasha Romanoff (Johnasson) returns for her third Marvel outing, as does head spy Nick Fury (Jackson making his sixth appearance), while newcomer Sam Wilson aka The Falcon (Mackie) is a welcome addition as an army veteran with a very cool jetpack.


Each of these characters – plus the titular metal-armed Winter Soldier – gets plenty of screen time to do their thing. The Falcon feels like a fully fledged superhero as opposed to a crammed-in sidekick, while Black Widow and Nick Fury continue to develop as interesting players who could easily carry their own spin-off films.

As for Captain America himself, people who see him as a jingoistic piece of chestbeating patriotism will be surprised to learn he doesn’t represent a country but rather an ideal that is at loggerheads with his country. The plot is particularly timely, with its electronic espionage angles tackling the NSA phone-tapping scandal and governments' ability to monitor our movements and behaviour in an age when we share everything online, leaving it to Captain America to ask the question "is this really freedom?".

As a result, the tone of the film and its security-vs-privacy notions is more akin to the political conspiracy films of the ‘70s, as opposed to the Raiders Of The Lost Ark vibe of the first Captain America movie, or the sci-fi/fantasy blend of the Thor films, or the epic blockbuster stylings of The Avengers.

The action sequences and fight scenes are superb, especially Captain America’s near-singlehanded takedown of a boatload of pirates, his punch-ons with The Winter Soldier and Batroc, and the moment when The Falcon finally shows what his jet pack can do.

It’s hard to judge whether this film makes any sense without having seen the first Captain America movie, but I get the feeling it does, with plenty of backstory helpfully spliced in throughout.

And if that feeling is correct, then this is already shaping up as one of the best actioners of the year, whether you’re a Marvel fan or not.