The following contains spoilers for Transcendence (2014). So there!
Last weekend saw the release of Wally Pfister’s directorial debut. Who is Wally Pfister? I’m glad you asked! Wally Pfister is Christopher Nolan’s long time cinematographer, so essentially he’s responsible for why Memento, Inception, and the Dark Knight films look awesome. Well now he’s going out on his own, and he directed a little movie called Transcendence (which, I would say “little” sarcastically, but the film is bombing pretty hard right now) which stars Johnny Depp and the entire side cast from Chris Nolan’s other movies.
Wally’s eye for visuals really shows in this film, as the colors and camerawork are down-to-earth yet still spectacular in a restrained way, echoing directors who appreciate natural beauty like Andrei Tarkovsky (Andrei Rublev, Solaris) or Krzysztof Kieslowski (The Decalogue, The Three Colors Trilogy). But what really caught my attention is just how much of Nolan’s story-telling style has rubbed off on Pfister, as the film feels like something Nolan would produce. It’s heavy on characters and drama, letting the story and atmosphere drive the action. It takes an outlandish sci-fi tale and brings it down to earth, making you care for the people involved and forgetting just out improbable the situation actually is. From almost every aspect it is extremely well crafted, from the story to the acting to the visuals to the soundtrack.
But as the movie tries to be something more than your average popcorn entertainment and seeks to be worthy of deeper thought, I found myself over analyzing it. No longer was it just the story of a man who was murdered and brought back to life in a computer, suddenly it became an allegorical take on Jesus’ death and resurrection (and no…I’m not talking about Robocop now). What’s this? A Jesus allegory in a sci-fi film? It’s not like we’ve ever seen that before (there’s the sarcasm). Well let’s think for a moment…
Johnny Depp’s character is a scientist who is quiet and loves people. He stands on stage and gives sermons to the masses on how science is a way of moving intelligence into the next step, and when asked point blank whether he wants to create a god, he basically says yes. Immediately after this talk, he is murdered by a group of people who are anti-technology and see him as a blasphemous threat to mankind’s natural development. You see where I’m going with this?
Now I could go on and on about this, but suffice to say other parallels in the film include Depp being resurrected, healing the crippled and blind with his new technology, and collecting a group of followers who see him as an almost spiritual leader and will do whatever he asks of them. But in this film, his followers are seen as cult fanatics, clearly brainwashed, yet still seemingly following him of their own free will and :enlightenment”. All he wants to do is help people and bring us closer to transcendence (title drop!), but as an all powerful godlike being that controls his people at will. Essentially, he’s a well-meaning yet extremely dangerous threat. Moral of the story: Jesus and his apostles started a misguided cult.
Now for the important question the last two paragraphs are clearing pointing to: am I reading too much into movies?
When watching a movie like Transcendence, it’s easy to take away multiple meanings and interpretations. But should I stop taking trying to find layered meanings and just enjoy the story for what it is on the surface? Movies like Pan’s Labyrinth and even this year’s Noah have alternately received praise and criticism based on individual interpretations of the films. But those are movies that invite such controversy based on their subject matter alone, bringing up themes like religion and the after-life that naturally bring out the audiences opinions. They are conversation starters, and whether or not they deserve such analysis, they make for great group discussions.
But both of those movies can be enjoyed on a surface level as well. Whether or not you choose to look closer at them, you can enjoy them for what they are. They invite conversation, but they don’t require it. On the opposite end of the spectrum, anything by Andrei Tarkovsky or Robert Bresson (A Man Escaped, Diary of a Country Priest) rely almost solely on their themes, almost throwing aside all surface entertainment value. The entertainment to be found in a movie like The Seventh Seal is directly connected with how much you think about it. The more you invest in it, the more you take away, and thus the more you enjoy it. If you refuse to put thought into a film like that, the odds are you will be bored out of your skull.
A movie like Transcendence works on a basic entertainment level, and thus does not require extra brain power to gain enjoyment out of it. However, its nature is such that it’s easy to get lost in translating the film maker’s intention. The problem is that it’s too easy to misinterpret the intention. I may look at the movie and instantly see a tale meant to bash Christianity, but alternatively someone else may watch it and say it’s about something entirely different. So the question arises yet again: am I reading too much into it?
I think it’s important to talk about films like this with others who enjoy getting a little deeper experience out of movies, but at the same time I think it’s important to realize that a lot of what we take away from movies is speculation. One can appreciate a thoughtful movie as a well crafted bit of entertainment while still taking away some personal gain from it, but it’s important to distinguish the two. Think about it, talk about it, let it change the way you look at movies. But maybe sometimes a well made movie is just a well made movie that’s worth watching for its own sake. And maybe sometimes that’s all it needs to be.