Being that I’m very seldom the “smartest guy in the room,” I get real excited when I recognize something that others—theoretically brighter folks—have missed. You’ve probably had that experience too: you “connect the dots” and see a reality others have missed; you show others around you something that then becomes obvious to them—“Aha!”
As it happens there are a couple areas where I’m pretty lucky at perceiving things—sometimes things that other, smarter people, miss. For instance, I’m pretty good at spotting scams—internet and otherwise. And also, with a couple (notable and embarrassing) exceptions, I’ve always been a good judge of character.
I have to say, however, the one area where I tend to “get” things others miss is in the movies. Not to put too fine a point on it, but occasionally I recognize things that top critics, “the experts,” don’t see (and this is not some vain fantasy; I’ll demonstrate below). You’d think I’d be proud of this, but actually it irritates the fool out of me. Most heavily advertised movies are formulaic Hollywood drivel. How many predictable “car chase-explosion-violent-revenge” or “true love-reunited-wiser-and-indivisible-after-90-minutes” or “pure-adolescents-triumphing-over-devious-adults” movies do we really need to see to know exactly how they’re going to end up and that they carry no message of any depth? On the other hand, periodically some movies do make it to wide release that have a message to share or have some quirky, engaging thematic elements. When the critics all seem to miss this, it makes me crazy.
For instance, recently the actors Ryan Gosling and Carey Mulligan made a gritty, intense movie called Drive. Of what famous classic movie was Drive a remake? . . . Obviously Drive was a close reworking of the western masterpiece Shane: a talented outlaw comes to the aid of an overwhelmed, humble man, his loveable wife and adoring son. He forsakes his well-ordered life as he rids the landscape of corrupt, powerful men—including two evil brothers and the professional gunmen brought in to kill him, and rides off into the sunset with a wound that may or may not be fatal. Clearly this retelling was the intent of those who made the movie. Yet much as I searched, I found only one major critic, Peter Travers of Rolling Stone, who even mentioned Shane in connection to Drive, and his comment was a passing remark about loner heroes. My favorite review of Drive came from Anthony Lane, a cinema critic of nothing less than the New Yorker magazine. He waxed eloquently, comparing Drive to a dozen other pictures, but somehow missed what should be an obvious reality—Drive is a remake of Shane. Carey Mulligan was even intentionally made to look like mousy, wistful Jean Arthur from the original.
Sometimes I wonder if movie critics are really not oblivious, but rather they are engaged in silent conspiracies. For instance, when I read the major critics’ reviews of Steven Spielberg’s remake of War of the Worlds, the comments were a mix of positive and negative—but I didn’t read any that discussed the powerful political statement the movie was making. Is it possible they all missed Spielberg’s message, spun from the lips of Dakota Fanning? It’s not hard to figure out what I’m talking about: rent the movie and, while you’re watching, remember it came out during a presidential campaign and that in our country one major party is characterized with the color blue and the other with red.
And speaking of a conspiracy of silence among critics, it’s difficult for me to remember a movie more lampooned by them than M. Night Shyamalan’s Lady in the Water. While I’d never say it was one of Shyamalan’s better efforts, it was incredibly original, edgy and engaging and did not deserve the savaging it received from the big name critics. Why were they so hard on the movie? Could it be because the only character killed in the film—a cynical, self-important jerk of a guy—was a critic? Now go hunt up reviews of the movie and see how many major critics even mention that particular character or how important he was to the message Shyamalan was trying to express about creativity.
I can understand if critics don’t want to mention the veiled politics in a movie, or if they want to get back at a director who is a little too honest about them. What I most have a problem with is when they simply miss the obvious—and that’s where the movie Transcendence comes in.
Most major film critics panned the movie mercilessly. Commonly they said Johnny Depp’s performance was mediocre and uninspired; that the first time director, Wally Pfister, should stick to cinematography; and that the screenplay is a muddle of pseudoscience, special effects and uninformed theology. To all of that I say perhaps the movie would have fared better in their reviews if the critics “got” the real intent and message of the picture.
For starters, when was the movie released? Wasn’t it Holy Week? What’s the story line of the main character? Will Caster [Johnny Depp] is a controversial, prophetic Artificial Intelligence researcher. Caster is consigned to a slow death after being shot with a radioactive bullet. Shortly after his death, his devoted wife manages to upload his consciousness into an AI computer program and then onto the internet; briefly dead, Caster has come back to life. In this new form, however, Caster is different. He has become transcendent. Eventually this transcendent Caster develops the ability to heal the desperately ill and perform other apparent miracles. He develops a close cadre of disciples who speak with his voice because his consciousness also resides within them; these followers develop abilities to do miraculous, benevolent things and draw great crowds of the infirm to his wilderness compound. Meanwhile scientific and government authority figures become alarmed at his astonishing abilities with his potential for complete global dominance. They form an alliance with anti-cyber terrorists. Ultimately the person who conceives a way to destroy Caster is his closest friend, the guy who knows his “source codes” and enters into a conspiracy with Caster’s wife to upload a lethal computer virus into him.
So if you’re acquainted with the gospel stories of Jesus of Nazareth, you’ll perceive a lot of common touchstones in this description of the movie. Caster is a portrayed as a Christ figure. His wife, who cares for his body and discovers that he has risen, is Mary Magadalene. Those close workers he heals and empowers are his apostles and the consciousness they share is a metaphor for the Holy Spirit. The government (Romans) collude with the Pharisees (zealous anti-AI terrorists) and the established scientific community (Sadducees) in an effort to end this new, explosive, supernatural power that has all knowledge and power and has transcended all earthly authority. His closest friend, Max Waters (Judas), conspires to betray him. There are numerous additional allegorical elements between the gospels and the film, but because I hope you’ll rent the movie (and because this blog has already become annoyingly long), I’m going to stop there to avoid giving any ultimate spoiler about the movie’s conclusion.
Believing as I do in rigorous scholarship, I think it’s necessary to point out that Transcendence is not an allegory. It is a parable. In literature the usual definitions are: 1) myth creates world; 2) fable explains world; 3) allegory restates world; and 4) parable destroys world. Movies like The Greatest Story Ever Told are “mythic” (remember please that “myth” as used here is a description of a particular literary device and not a judgment about the truth of the story). Movies like the The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe and The Shoes of the Fisherman are fables: they expand and explain the ideas first expressed in the gospels. Then there are allegories, retellings of the original stories in different settings. I used to say that the best Jesus movies were Cool Hand Luke, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and Bambi (yep, just as Walt Disney intended, Bambi is clearly an allegorical retelling of the Jesus’ story).
Parables on the other hand challenge the underlying assumptions of the original ideas. And this is probably a good place to point out that Jesus taught in parables. He used them to make his hearers question the absurd, unethical, restrictive teachings and assumptions of the religious culture in which he found himself in the first century.
Transcendence is the finest religious parable I’ve ever seen in the form of a movie. It seems to me that much of what the wise film critics mocked as lack of focus and consistency are in fact the intentional, internal contradictions of a film that is logically following through the progression of well-meaning people—both Caster’s disciples and those who stand in deadly opposition to them—struggling to deal with their own idealism run amok.
Pfister gives viewers two runs at the true theme of the picture. Twice we watch the scene in which a man asks Caster about the ultimate potential of sentient artificial intelligence: “Aren’t you talking about creating a god?” Guilelessly Caster responds with his own question: “Haven’t men always done that?” It’s important to remember that in this movie Caster and Pfister aren’t commenting about a Divine Being but about human beings. The point of Transcendence in the final analysis is a comment on every great religion: we human beings continually create and refine gods according to our ideals, then we won’t let them assume lordship over us. This is the ultimate religious parable, for it doesn’t confront our vision of a Supreme Being; instead it confronts our inability to be led by any Higher Power.
Transcendence plays on our shared human encoding: a benevolent, all-present, all-powerful Master is a real intrusion on our personal freedom, and that getting away from a power like that is essential to maintaining our humanity. We want a Supreme Being who chooses us, who fits our perception of the divine, who promises great rewards and who then stays out of the way while we do our thing. Caster’s wife, Evelyn, soon gets to the point where what she wants from her transcendent, totally imminent husband more than anything else is privacy.
I guess it’s sort of ironic: Wally Pfister created a movie that depicts how, when it comes to letting a Higher Power actually be our Master, human beings just don’t get it. And when it came to understanding the ins-and-outs and message of the picture, the critics just didn’t get it. –Laz Barnhill