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Posts Tagged ‘Rebecca Hall’

There is a sense in which Wally Pfister’s Transcendence is one of those movies that was inevitably going to be made sooner or later: it deals with a hot-button issue somewhere on the borderline between science and society, the sort of thing which is still essentially speculative, but sufficiently close enough to reality for people to be thinking seriously about it. As a piece of socio-cultural history it may well be recalled as a flag-moment in the development of our awareness of an idea: if something is well-enough established as a concept for Hollywood to start making a big-budget all-star cast movie about it, it can’t be that obscure. Whether or not the movie is any good is another matter, of course.

transcendence

The movie tips its hand by opening with a prologue set in a post-technological world where lifestyles seem to have stepped back in time a century or two: mobile phones lie discarded, laptops are used to prop open doors, and so on. We are promised the story of how this came about.

It turns out to be the story of brilliant computer scientist Will Caster (Johnny Depp) and his wife Evelyn (Rebecca Hall). They are both working on creating a strong Artificial Intelligence in the belief that such an entity, capable of improving its own capabilities at extraordinary speed, would revolutionise the world. Unfortunately a radical terrorist organisation has appeared and is devoted to stopping work on this kind of system, and an attack from one of these people leaves Caster with only a very short time to live.

Using radical new technology, Evelyn and her friend Max (the ever-watchable Paul Bettany) attempt to save Caster. That’s save as in ‘save to a hard-drive’ – they wire his brain up to electrodes and copy his cerebral functions to a computer, effectively creating a download of his mind. But once Will Caster’s body has expired, in what sense is the entity in the computer truly him? Have they in fact just spawned something totally new and alien, a potential threat to civilisation?

Well, this is just the first act of the movie, and probably its strongest segment: as I believe I’ve mentioned in the past, I am somewhat familiar with some of the philosophical issues associated with AI research, and the movie articulates these clearly and intelligently. From here, however, the film’s identity as a successor to fondly-remembered early 70s SF movies like The Andromeda Strain, The Forbin Project, and Phase IV becomes much clearer. Much of the action takes place in gleaming underground installations, the nature of human existence is pondered upon at length, and there is a slightly awkward mixture of action set-pieces and visual and narrative extravagance. As usual, some rather good actors (in this case Morgan Freeman and Cillian Murphy) are retained solely to stand around on the periphery of the plot and look vaguely concerned.

And, as you may have guessed, the whole thing doesn’t quite come together as a satisfying whole. Partly this is because, while the dialogue is telling us this story is about a potentially world-changing event, the actual images are all about a small town in the middle of nowhere with a lot of solar panel. There’s no sense of scale to the crisis (there’s not much sense of crisis at all, if we’re honest), while the film’s transition from just-about-plausible near-future drama to something more fantastical is a bit of a wrench as well. The fact that the plot appears to be well-endowed with a number of big holes is also a problem.

This is ultimately a film about ideas, but – presumably in an attempt to make it more commercial – thriller and action elements have been grafted on, without much conviction. There’s a subplot about nanotechnology being used to enhance people so they become superhuman cyborgs, but the film shies away from using this as a device to create the extravagant action sequences you might expect. In a way this is commendable, as they clearly don’t want to make a blandly obvious and simplistic film dealing with a black-and-white ideology.

On the other hand, it may just be that Pfister and his team have just made a vague and oblique and slightly confused film dealing with a black-and-white ideology instead. It’s probably a great problemĀ for Transcendence that it’s come out only a few months after Her, another movie about the nature of AI and how human beings will come to terms with it, both as a society and in our personal relationships. However, Transcendence is a much more conservative movie than Her: it largely functions in a cautionary-tale mode, the usual old story of scientists interfering with things of which man was not meant to know, playing God, and so on (there’s a fair bit of religious imagery in this film). It gives the human condition a privileged status and seems to default to the assumption that anything radically different from and more powerful than us is necessarily a threat. To be fair, the film does hedge its bets to a considerable degree come the climax – the human characters may just be acting out of an unjustified fear of the AI – but this seemed to me to just be trying to give the conclusion a little spurious depth.

Wally Pfister is a brilliant cinematographer and long-time collaborator with Christopher Nolan, whom I was not surprised to find credited as an executive producer on Transcendence. However, this doesn’t have the clarity of ideas, the narrative drive, or indeed the sheer innovation of any of Nolan’s own movies. The near-total humourlessness of the film is a problem, and none of the actors really seem capable of bringing their characters completely to life (it increasingly seems to me that when Johnny Depp isn’t in camp overdrive mode, he just comes across as slightly stoned all the time), but the main problems with the film come from the storytelling issues I mentioned above. It has a whole bunch of ideas and themes it wants to deal with, but it can’t quite build a story just from them alone, and the inclusion of more traditional action-SF elements doesn’t work. This is an interesting film, and a curious attempt at a 70s-style intelligent-SF movie four decades on – but it simply isn’t close to being completely satisfying as a story.

 

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Normally I have a lot of time for the science advocate, evolutionary theoriser and militant atheist Richard Dawkins, but every once in a while he comes out with some rather off-the-wall opinions, usually when he has temporarily left his own area of expertise and is commenting somewhere else off piste. Fifteen years ago or so I caught part of a lecture the great man was giving on the presentation of science in the media, and he was characteristically scathing about the bias he perceived. Broadcast every week on BBC1, he said, was a programme with two main characters, one of whom represented a rational, scientific viewpoint, while the other was a mouthpiece for every piece of New Age-y and pseudoscientific piece of gobbledegook the writers could come up with. Every week the characters would present their solutions to a mystery or crisis they encountered in the line of their work, and every week the scientific explanation would be wrong. How ridiculous! How objectionable! How likely to turn the nation into superstitious cretins!

Well, er, hang on, Rich – the show in question was The X Files, and only having genuinely spooky things in it 50% of the time would probably not have helped the ratings, given this was a show predicated on the existence of spooky phenomena. Nevertheless, the Prof had a point: any work of fiction revolving around a skeptical rationalist taking on the forces of the unexplained is unlikely to see the protagonist proved right, simply because there’s no story there. Or, to put it another way, one of the distinguishing characteristics of ghost stories is that they have ghosts in them.

Which brings us (finally) to Nick Murphy’s The Awakening, which has come out a couple of weeks late for Halloween, but clearly wants to be a Properly Scary Ghost Movie. Set in 1921, the main character is Florence (Rebecca Hall) a – you guessed it! – skeptical investigator of the paranormal. Her work in the area has won her admirers and detractors in equal number, but almost at once we can sense that something deeper drives her – does she just want to reveal the truth, or is she secretly hoping to one day find evidence of a ghost she is unable to explain away? Some tragedy seems to lurk in her past.

Florence is approached by Mallory (Dominic West), a master at a boarding school in Cumbria. There have long been reports of disturbances in the house, and the same spectral figure has been appearing in school photographs for decades. Now a pupil has been found dead, apparently having died of fright, and for obvious reasons the school authorities wish to have the matter investigated.

Well, I give absolutely nothing away by saying that on this occasion Florence encounters an apparition that resolutely resists debunking. That we are in standard ghost story territory is apparent from very early on, possibly even before we meet the Creepy Domestic to be found in all haunted houses (played in this instance by Imelda Staunton).

I turned up to The Awakening with fairly high hopes, based principally on the fact that co-writing the script with Murphy is Stephen Volk. Volk is not really a big name screenwriter, but nearly twenty years ago he traumatised the nation (if you believe the legend, and why not?) with the brilliant Halloween mockumentary Ghostwatch, in which a routine outside broadcast from a ‘troubled’ suburban house became an excursion into complete terror (particularly for those audience members who switched on late and weren’t aware it was drama).

Well, as I said, The Awakening is a much more traditional tale, and – if we’re honest – considerably less impressive. Murphy contrives some effective ‘jump’ moments (the gentleman in the row behind me was shouting ‘Yaargh!’ quite frequently, and I believe I expostulated at one point myself) but can’t quite generate an appropriately creepy atmosphere to accompany them the rest of the time.

As a result, the ghost itself, despite a reasonably effective build-up, isn’t that memorable a creation (certainly not compared to Pipes, the malevolent presence at the heart of Ghostwatch). I think perhaps the story has been overly drenched in metaphor – hardly surprisingly, given the setting, all the characters seem scarred and haunted by events in their personal histories. This kind of metaphor – the marks left by the past on the present – is central to many ghost stories, if not all of them, so it isn’t a problem in and of itself. But, that said, I’m not sure it should take the place of delivering a damn good scare, which is arguably what happens here.

That said, for most of its duration this is a fine film, well-mounted and directed, and with excellent performances from everyone involved. Rebecca Hall is particularly good in what’s a pretty big starring role which demands that she runs the gamut of emotions. For most of the film, the script is solid, if not exactly innovative, with a dash of Nigel Kneale’s The Stone Tape (another brilliant TV ghost story) in its focus on Florence’s rational approach to investigating the haunting.

Unfortunately, the movie comes a serious cropper in its final act. Having been restrained and quite thoughtful prior to this point, the climax sees the movie throwing not one, not two, but three separate twists at the audience. (Although one of these has appeared in so many other ghost movies that it’s practically become a cliche.) There’s a definite case of diminishing returns going on here (when the final twist was revealed, my reaction was not ‘What?!?’ so much as ‘What, not another one?!?’), and I’m not even sure the whole movie hangs together coherently as a result. It would be dishonest of me not to say that I found the end of this film a serious letdown after a strong start.

Is it enough to completely spoil The Awakening? Well, not quite – the film does work well up to a point, the acting is good, and there are some extremely spooky individual moments, especially early on. It won’t scare you to death, but neither will it bore you there – just be prepared to cut the ending some slack.

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