Category Archives: 2010s

Black Mountain Side (2014)

*. Influence is a tricky business. Done right, it’s an homage or creative re-imagining. Done wrong and it’s a rip-off.
*. Black Mountain Side has several influences, but primarily it’s derived from John Carpenter’s The Thing. An all-male team of scientists stationed in the far north uncover mysterious ancient artifacts. The men seem to be infected in some way by what they have unearthed, leading to an outbreak of paranoia, madness, and murder.
*. Now The Thing is a personal favourite of mine, as I think it is for a lot of horror fans. Black Mountain Side is no Thing, but you can’t hold it to the same standard. It also goes a slightly different route, by choice or by necessity.
*. This makes it, in my opinion, quite an interesting and well managed indie horror. It moves slowly, and quietly, but builds suspense through the gradual ungluing of the team’s mental state. We strain to see what it is they think they’re seeing, we mistrust our own eyes, we are unnerved by absence, suspicious of silence.
*. I’ll add in passing that the DVD has another one of those commentaries (by writer-director Nick Szostakiwkyj and some of the cast and crew) that doesn’t mention the film’s biggest debts. Specifically,I don’t recall anyone referring even in passing to The Thing. I only raise this point because so many commentaries do this. The commentary for Quarantine never once mentions Rec, which it is a remake of. Slither‘s commentary doesn’t mention Night of the Creeps. The commentary for Don’t Breathe doesn’t mention The People Under the Stairs. In at least some of these cases this silence must have been on purpose, but I don’t know what that purpose was. It’s not like the borrowings weren’t obvious.
*. They also don’t say anything on the commentary about the title. The title bugs me. It’s actually the name of a Led Zeppelin song from their first album, but I don’t know if this was a connection anyone had in mind (most of the people involved in the project seem to have been very young, and so might not have even known about it). Is the camp located on a black Mountain? On the side of Black Mountain? I don’t get it.

*. My mouth dropped open when the visiting professor is given the tour of the camp and his cabin is referred to as a cramped “shithole.” They seem like luxury accommodations to me, especially for an archaeological dig out in the middle of nowhere.
*. But then this isn’t the kind of film where you want to examine such matters too closely. I mean, who exactly among all the members of Team Beard are the archaeologists? Seeing as the natives do all the digging, I’m not sure what most of the bros have to do except sit around smoking and drinking. And they smoke and drink a lot. A stronger screenplay gives characters more to do when they’re not actively advancing the plot.

*. That’s enough carping though. As I said, I like Black Mountain Side. It’s a horror film with negative capability, content to leave us in a state of doubt as to what is actually going on. I thought they might all have been hallucinating because of getting into some strange roots. I remember Mark Kermode suggesting the same thing with regard to the supernatural events in The Witch, and it seems even more likely here.
*. In any event, whatever the cause of their madness, because it affects everyone we don’t have anywhere to stand where we can make a clear judgment on it. The actual presence of the Deer Man is left ambiguous. That he looks like a Native deity and speaks lines from the Book of Job suggests some amount of projection is going on, some rising from the depths of the collective unconscious. Beyond that I wouldn’t want to go.

*. The Deer Man is also hard to see. We can see him, but only in the dark or at a distance. Again, this may have been by choice or necessity. The “making of” featurette included in the DVD shows some of the early models for the Deer Man and it was pretty funny. But there’s something truly unsettling about these scary visions that we only see from far away. Distance makes them more disturbing, even though they’re not close enough to be immediately threatening. I was reminded of the vision of Miss Jessel appearing across the lake from the governess in The Innocents. And that was one of the scariest scenes in any movie I’ve seen.

*. Cameron Tremblay, the photographer, has a great eye for darkness. Not painting with shadow so much as digging pits of darkness into the screen. We also get a really impressive long tracking shot with a Steadicam that runs just over two minutes, taking us into and out of a cabin. Setting up the lighting for that must have been a challenge, but it works.
*. Apparently Van Sant’s Elephant was the inspiration for the long take. I told you these were young filmmakers. Tremblay also credits The Social Network for providing a reference for the overall look for the film. That’s one of those links that surprises at first, but when you look into it you see what he means. And seeing is everything.
*. So it’s a film that makes you think of other films, but it’s also quite original both in its subject matter and tone. It doesn’t wrap up neatly but evokes ambiguity, and in doing so it’s genuinely spooky. It’s not The Thing but it borrows the basic premise and takes it in a different direction. Kudos for that.

Stonehearst Asylum (2014)

*. It’s advertised as coming “from the mind of Edgar Allan Poe,” which says less than the title credit, which has it “based on a story by Edgar Allan Poe.” In fact it’s more like one of those cases where a movie is “inspired by” an event or work of fiction. It owes almost nothing to Poe’s 1845 story “The System of Doctor Tarr and Professor Fether” aside from the conceit of lunatics taking over and running an asylum.
*. That’s a concept that has been recycled a few times on film (The Mansion of Madness, Don’t Look in the Basement) but never (at least in my experience) all that faithfully. I’m not sure if there’s enough matter to it, especially when the audience can be expected to already know the set-up.
*. Stonehearst Asylum does try its best to make the story fresh. The reveal that the patients have taken over occurs before the halfway point, so you know there has to be some new angle to make it work. Or two new angles, as it turns out.
*. The second of these has to do with a new twist they’ve added. I won’t give this away, as it comes quite late and I think it’s pretty good. Really far-fetched, but by that point I didn’t care.
*. The other new angle is the way the “real” authorities are presented, from our contemporary point of view, as sadistic morons, while the crazies are erratic but essentially good-natured and enlightened, at least until triggered or provoked. In as backward a world as nineteenth-century England, medicine was the real horror and crazy people were sane. Or at least they know there’s nothing wrong with masturbation. This alone lets us know they’re with us.
*. That’s a simplistic point to be sure, but it does provide a new entry point into the old story.
*. The casting of the representatives of these two respective positions doesn’t surprise. Michael Caine had already played an authoritarian in charge of an asylum in Quills, while Ben Kingsley had been an odd doctor we were never sure about in Shutter Island.
*. They got some good talent on board for this one, though I don’t think Kingsley, and especially Caine, are particularly exercised by their roles. I would say the same for David Thewlis and Brendan Gleeson. You’d think Kate Beckinsale, whose Eliza Graves was originally going to give the film its name, would have more to work with, but at the end of the day the movie doesn’t seem that interested in her. When she transforms into Underworld‘s Selene at the end it’s all a bit much, as though they just threw their hands in the air not knowing what to do.
*. Well, it’s not a terrible movie. It’s just not very good either. That’s all the faint praise I can muster.

Sausage Party (2016)

*. Wow. I have to begin by saying that I was really looking forward to this one. I have nothing against crude, juvenile humour. That’s what I heard Sausage Party was full of, and it’s what I was in the mood for. I was ready to  laugh.
*. I didn’t find anything offensive about Sausage Party. On the other hand, I didn’t find anything funny about it either. For what it’s worth, the only times I even cracked a smile were in response to a couple of the more crude and tasteless moments: the Douche sucking off the Juice Box and the revelation of Gum as a pink Stephen Hawking blob in a wheelchair. The climactic orgy, which I think was supposed to be offensive, didn’t do anything for me.
*. If a movie like this isn’t offensive or shocking though, it really isn’t working at all. There are no funny jokes, visual or otherwise. There’s a lot of swearing and attempts at ethnic humour, but what’s funny about the jive-talkin’ Mr. Grits? The fact that he doesn’t like Crackers? Or Chief Firewater? The fact that he likes to get baked? Or Teresa del Taco? The fact that she’s a lesbian? Not only is there nothing funny here, I don’t even know what was supposed to be funny.
*. I’d like to leave off saying anything more here, but I think I have to address the film’s critical reception. This was, on average, very positive. More positive, in fact, than audience reviews. What does it mean when a movie of this nature does better with critics than it does with audiences?
*. I think what it means is that critics have just given up on saying anything bad about a movie that they figured was critic-proof anyway. To say it was no good would just be to expose themselves as hopelessly out of touch, humourless prudes. A professional film reviewer could lose his job for something like that.
*. So, according to the review aggregator Rotten Tomatoes, the critical consensus is that “Sausage Party is definitely offensive, but backs up its enthusiastic profanity with an impressively high laugh-to-gag ratio – and a surprisingly thought-provoking storyline.”
*. As I’ve said, I didn’t think there were any laughs, and I’m not even sure what the gags were supposed to be. But just look at that last part. A “surprisingly thought-provoking storyline.”
*. One wonders at just how low the bar has now been set. What did anyone find thought-provoking about this? The idea that God might not exist, or was cruel? That we need to embrace difference? That Jews and Arabs can get along in the Middle East if they just come out as gay? Again, I want to emphasize that I don’t find any of this offensive or shocking. Not a bit. But thought-provoking? I can’t begin to imagine the mental swamp someone must have spent their entire life in to have found Sausage Party thought-provoking. There isn’t even a vegetarian message since all the veggies (and indeed inanimate objects as well) are just as sentient as the wieners. I’m at a total loss to explain this.
*. I don’t think I’ll even try. Or bother saying anything more.

Doctor Strange (2016)

*. I know I’m hard on Marvel’s superhero movies, but it’s not because I’m against comic books. I read a lot of comics when I was a kid. I even read Doctor Strange. So I was looking forward to this one, just a little.
*. It’s a disappointment. The interesting thing about Doctor Strange, and what would have been a great angle to pursue on film, is that he was a psychedelic superhero. The Eastern mysticism. That cape (didn’t it have a paisley lining at one point?). Those trips to strange dimensions that looked like the inside of a lava lamp with acid-wash backdrops. And last but far from least let’s not forget that in the original comic books the good doctor sported a ’70s porn-star ‘stache. The demonic goatee came later.
*. This isn’t to say that Doctor Strange should have gone the route of ironic ’70s parody transplanted to the present day, like a reawakened Austin Powers or Starsky and Hutch. Though that might have been interesting given Marvel’s increasing tendency toward self-satire (as in Ant-Man and Deadpool). Nor am I just upset that this isn’t the movie I wanted them to make, which is the most useless form of criticism. I’m just registering my sense that something got lost in translation from page to screen and a real opportunity to do something different was missed.
*. In the event, they don’t do anything interesting with the story at all. This is a pretty big problem, and for the Marvel Universe it’s a problem that’s getting worse. We know the script so well. There’s the origin story where we’re introduced to the protagonist who may be rich or whatever but whose life is going nowhere. There is the triggering event and he becomes the Hero, complete with a menu of unique superpowers. Usually there is a girlfriend he returns to but who has trouble relating to him in his transfigured state. The hero often has a mentor figure who helps bring him along. There is a villain who may share a similar back story to the hero, or be from another dimension. Or both. The conclusion involves a spectacular battle where the hero is called upon to make a Christ-like sacrifice to save the humdrum people of the world.
*. Deadpool avoided the formula, at least a bit, by beginning the story in the middle of things and then filling us in by way of flashbacks. It was the same old story, but at least they jazzed up the delivery a bit. No such luck this time.
*. Here we start off with super-surgeon Dr. Stephen Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) getting in a car accident and traveling to Nepal to get his mojo back, and more. The mentor is Tilda Swinton, playing The Ancient One. Strange is a (very) quick study and soon finds himself back at his old hospital where he tries to make up with his ex-girlfriend (Rachel McAdams). She doesn’t understand what’s going on. There’s a plot involving an attempt to open a gateway or portal to another dimension, allowing an evil force named Dormammu to take over the planet. I can’t imagine why Dormammu wants to bother, but whatever. The hero enters the dimensional portal (this was very reminiscent of the end of The Avengers) and sacrifices himself in some kind of temporal loop that traps Dormammu, who decides to call off his plans . . . for now. Also as per Marvel standard operating procedure there are some teasers included in post-credit sequences.
*. So it sticks closely to formula and I have to say that by now that formula is getting pretty stale. But there’s an even bigger problem than this.
*. Magic is a different kind of super power. I think we can all relate, imaginatively, to someone who is faster than a speeding bullet, more powerful than a locomotive, or able to leap tall buildings in a single bound. Such superheroes are super, but we can still at least understand what they’re doing. They’re running really fast, they’re flying, or they’re hitting things very hard.
*. But a magician is in a different category. Once you begin breaking down the categories of space and time, or the laws of classical physics, then my eyes start to glaze over. Reality becomes plastic, and cities dissolve into Escher-like kaleidoscopes. If our sorcerers can do all this, what can’t they do?

*. It all looks a lot like Inception, which in turn looked like The Matrix. I think The Matrix was the real game-changer here, and not just for its look but for the theory underpinning it. This was that the “reality” experienced by those in the Matrix was really only a bunch of code that an adept like Neo could learn to manipulate, becoming a God in the process.
*. This idea of all reality, or our reality, being only virtual and thus easy to manipulate into novel forms, was also front and center in Transcendence and Lucy (both 2014). Lucy is basically a superhero movie too, with the eponymous character becoming one with the Matrix and thus a God. In Transcendence Johnny Depp experiences the same transfiguration through uploading his consciousness to the cloud.
*. I was reminded of these movies when the Ancient One introduces Strange to the world of magic by telling him that spells can be thought of as “programs” and that they constitute “the source code of reality.” This from the mouth of a supernatural being dispensing wisdom from a martial ashram in Kathmandu. Is nothing sacred?
*. Keeping with this same point, there’s a very odd bit in the script where Strange is taken to task for daring to mess with “the laws of nature.” Huh? Magic is taking the laws of nature and throwing them out of the window. Is his cloak of levitation obeying the laws of nature? The Eye of Agamotto? Are the spectral forms “natural”? Come on.
*. In my notes on Chandu the Magician I made the point that while magic would seem to be a natural fit with film, that’s not how it has ever worked out. Chandu himself was an immensely popular radio hero who, despite great state-of-the-art effects, didn’t translate onto film. Doctor Strange seems to me to be another example of the same thing. Since movies are magic anyway, magic on film is nothing special. It loses its magic.
*. So yes, if you’re into watching various metropoles (New York, London, Hong Kong) getting scrambled like a Rubik’s Cube then you may find this diverting. I didn’t think there was anything interesting in it at all. Dormammu was Sauron from Lord of the Rings, and Kaecilius and his back-up Zealots looked like the three baddies who escape from the Phantom Zone at the beginning of Superman 2. The cast are all pretty good, but they don’t have much to say or do that’s worth attending to. Swinton’s Ancient One actually tells us that “death gives life meaning” before she expires. Somebody got paid to write that.

Don’t Breathe (2016)

*. I was only about fifteen minutes into this one before I recognized that it was a remake of Wes Craven’s The People Under the Stairs (1991). The connections seemed obvious. Craven, in turn, had based his screenplay, loosely, on a true story about burglars breaking into a house and finding a bunch of trapped children.
*. On the DVD commentary for this film Stephen Lang (who plays the Blind Man) asks writer-director Fede Alvarez and writer Rodo Sayagues if the idea was based on a true story. They initially say the idea was just about the blind man but that they also knew about the various stories of girls who had been held captive in basements for years and thought it would be cool to make a movie about people breaking into a house and finding such a situation. The People Under the Stairs isn’t mentioned. Did they not know it? I’ve noticed on a lot of DVD commentaries that directors and writers conspicuously fail to acknowledge their greatest debts. I’m not sure why this is. I mean, on the commentary for Quarantine they don’t even mention that it’s a remake of Rec!
*. So Don’t Breathe isn’t breathtakingly original. Even the blind villain isn’t that new. We’d already seen the blind troglodytes in The Descent, and there’d been a pack of blind hoodie-wearing ghetto rats in Citadel. Being sniffed out by monsters with heightened senses of smell or hearing goes back at least as far as Tombs of the Blind Dead (1972), and probably much further.

*. But originality isn’t what’s important in a genre flick like this. What we want is alert direction, a good villain, and at least one memorably gross scene (usually, but not necessarily, a “good kill”).
*. Don’t Breathe delivers on all three of these. The promotional campaign told us it was being brought to us by the same people who did Evil Dead. Note the missing definite article: not The Evil Dead (1981) but Evil Dead (2013). Yes, Sam Raimi was part of the production team here, but it was helmed by Fede Alvarez, who had directed Evil Dead.
*. Those aren’t great credentials, but apparently Alvarez took criticism of Evil Dead to heart and decided he wanted to go in a totally different direction. What he meant by this was an original script, less gore, and less CGI. Good idea. And while Alvarez hardly reveals himself as a major new talent with this film, he does demonstrate an understanding of the basic grammar of suspense and he doesn’t give do anything too idiotic. Exasperation at an idiot plot can really hurt a film like this.

*. The good villain in this case is the Blind Man, played by Stephen Lang. It’s not a great part. As with the best heavies, he has few lines and we don’t actually know that much about him. He remains mostly mysterious. But he’s different and has a unique look. I especially like the muscular reality of him. What I mean is he doesn’t look buff but rough: this is an old guy with old-man strength. That wifebeater and those heavy boots are the uniform of someone who doesn’t give a fuck any more.
*. He’s also, while not given “depth,” a character who is allowed a certain amount of sympathy. He’s Eastwood wanting these punks to get off his lawn, and he has a point. Sure he goes (or the film takes him) too far in the end, but he’s not just a bogeyman.
*. Finally there is the one memorable gross-out. This doesn’t involve the dispatch of any of the kids but rather concerns a loaded turkey baster dripping in anticipation, and a hair suspended in milky viscosity. Definitely an “ew” moment and not one likely to be forgotten by anyone who sees it. What more can you ask?

*. In addition to these essential elements there are signs of a real desire to make it all interesting. I’m thinking in particular here of the long shot (or what’s made to look like a single long shot but probably was at least two or three shots spliced together) introducing us to the interior of the house. They didn’t have to take us on a tour of the whole house (sans basement) right away, but since we’re with the gang all the time it fits, and it’s done so fluidly we don’t even realize how well it’s being done. That final flip underneath the bed showing us the gun is like the cherry on top. Take that, shaky-cam aficionados! This is real filmmaking!
*. I appreciate that cellphones can be used as flashlights in a pinch, and that’s how they’re used in a number of recent horror films. But shouldn’t a gang of burglars breaking into a house at night have brought some flashlights? I would have.
*. What does the Blind Man mean when he says “I’m not a rapist. I never force myself on her”? Does he mean that Cindy accepted her part in a bargain? And why would that distinction (which is casuistry anyway) apply to what he plans to do to Rocky?
*. Where is all that light coming from outside the windows? The exteriors don’t show any streetlights, but it’s like it’s high noon on a sunny day out there.

*. The ending is dark, leaving things open for a sequel (which became inevitable on the film’s success). It was, however, originally imagined as being much darker, with Rocky not escaping. This would have been a real downer, and yet more in keeping with the nihilistic spirit of contemporary horror.
*. Personally, I find the nihilism trite. “There’s no God. It’s a joke. It’s a bad joke. You tell me what God would allow this.” That’s easy to say. “There’s nothing a man can’t do once he accepts the fact that there is no God.” Or vice versa, depending on how you define God.
*. So this isn’t a landmark or game-changer. It’s a welcome relief from the found-footage genre (which one could easily imagine it being done as), but it’s very much in line with another sort of film I’ve referred to as the “trap” movie. This is a genre where the protagonists aren’t besieged within a house so much as they’re stuck in a situation they have to either escape from or die (think The Ruins or any of the many, many Game of Death films, the children of Saw). So to be sure we’ve been here before. But it’s all put across with professionalism and intelligence, and it has a crazy old muscleman chasing some kids. And a turkey baster too.

Morgan (2016)

*. I wonder why, around about this time, there were so many movies dealing with the idea of humanity evolving to some post- and super-human state. Lucy and Transcendence both came out in 2014 and this film in 2016. Were we that impatient for the Next Big Thing? Was it just that the science of the Singularity, artificial intelligence, and genetic engineering had gone mainstream and become a part of mass culture? Or had we become a little sick of ourselves and the hash we’d made of civilization and the environment, to the point where we were eager to be superseded?
*. Probably a combination of all of these fed into the cultural moment. In any event, Morgan is another kick at the can, with the eponymous girl being a genetically engineered “hybrid biological organism” of some sort. When this is how she was initially described I immediately wondered what exactly she was a hybrid of, but that may be looking into these matters too deeply. On the DVD commentary director Luke Scott hints that Morgan is connected to the Internet through some kind of nanotechnology (he calls it a “wi-fi gland”). I wasn’t sure how that worked, but I guess it explains how she knows so much about other people and can drive so well. It also makes her even more like Scarlett Johansson in Lucy and Johnny Depp in Transcendence.
*. At first blush Morgan might seem to buck the trend of the other films I mentioned because she returns to the more traditional idea of enhanced humanity as something malign: a threat to the rest of us. But at the end the message we’re left with is more in keeping with new ways of thinking about such things. Morgan is only what she’s been programmed to be, and has a good heart. No, the answer for tech that doesn’t live up to expectations is . . . better tech. There’s no questioning of our need to create superhumans in the first place. That much is inevitable.

*. Another movie that came out around the same time, Ex Machina, also bears more than a passing resemblance in terms of the basic theme. The scientific outpost/bunker set down in the middle of a beautiful green nowhere is an obvious echo, as is the New Eve, an experiment that predictably gets out of hand.
*. And why Eve instead of Adam? Why a female killing machine? Wouldn’t a genetically engineered male have a better combat chassis? Is there something else at work here? In Ex Machina Ava is a babe because what any wealthy, lonely nerd would want to build is a fantasy sexbot. But why make Morgan — and the earlier model, Lee — female? Is the company concerned that they might go out into the world and breed, opening Pandora’s genetic box?
*. For what it’s worth, Scott says on the commentary that there was a scene planned showing Morgan naked and revealing “her” to be androgynous, but they didn’t shoot it. I’m glad. It would have only confused things more. Sure “Morgan” and “Lee” are non-gender specific names, but both characters are clearly female.
*. I talked a little bit about “hoodie horror” in my notes on Citadel, but I’m not sure anything I said is germane to a discussion of this film. What I do want to register is the fact that hoodies are not practical combat gear. You have no peripheral vision. Then again, Lee’s stylish haircut isn’t very practical either. How many times does she have to toss her head to get her bangs out of her eyes?
*. Scott says he wanted a hoodie to hide Morgan away and leave her gender ambiguous. This seems weak to me, since everyone calls her “her” right from the beginning, and she looks like a perfectly normal girl under the hood (that is, there are no enhancements to conceal). I think she’s wearing a hoodie just because that’s what all the cool kids were wearing at the time.

*. I haven’t give any spoiler alerts here for the reveal that Lee is another modified human weapon because (1) I don’t do spoiler alerts, and (2) I’m not sure how big a secret it was supposed to be.
*. I’m not the quickest guy on the uptake, but by the halfway point I’d figured this out. I think the script, however, does a good job of leaving it ambiguous. Sure Kate Mara has the look of a replicant, but she might just be a suit sent out from corporate.
*. I initially felt some disappointment that Morgan and Lee didn’t get to spend more time together. But upon further consideration I think they handled it just right. The thing is, the two don’t have much to say to each other. They understand each other well enough without words, and it’s refreshing that when they fight they do so in silence. I think it’s also true that less can be more in such matters. The talking-through-glass may be meant to recall The Silence of the Lambs, and while everyone loves the interaction between Hannibal and Clarice in that film I think the fact that there’s really very little time spent between them makes the scenes they do have together stronger.

*. Just what is the psych evaluator Dr. Shapiro trying to do? He says his job is to build trust with the subject. He doesn’t even try. Does he want to provoke a violent reaction? He seems to be doing his best, but why the hell would he do that when he knows he’s locked in a room with a lethal weapon?

*. Much of the nuts and bolts of the plot is similarly hard to square. Things happen because they’re what’s needed to advance the plot, not because they make any sense. Why wait until Morgan regains consciousness and then re-sedate her only to kill her by lethal injection? Why not just give her a dose when she’s out? Wouldn’t that have been less cruel? And why doesn’t Lee do the honours? That’s what she’s there for, isn’t it? But she leaves the job to a bunch of people she knows are compromised and probably suspects are incompetent.
*. Or why does Morgan slip into these homicidal states? She seems self-controlled most of the time, but why does she stab Kathy in the eye? If Darren and the others are planning to escape with her, why does she kill them? Wouldn’t she be bettering her odds to let them take her away and then deal with them later? Shouldn’t she have figured that out? And why doesn’t she kill Skip? Why doesn’t she keep his rifle? The movie is full of questions like this.
*. I really like Jennifer Jason Leigh as an actress, but what function did her character have in the story here? And why wasn’t she taken to a hospital to have her eye treated? That dressing looks pretty dirty. It might be getting infected.
*. Morgan didn’t do well at the box office or with critics. I think that’s too bad, as this is a decent little movie. There’s an interesting cast and they’re all pretty good, with Kate Mara in particular being excellent. The story and the general look are familiar, but not quite to the point of cliché. I think there may have been some problem with the marketing, as it was promoted as a horror movie, which it isn’t since Morgan is too darn cute and we’re on her side almost right from the start.
*. Perhaps the ending is what hurt it the most, as it isn’t a big enough surprise to make up for being so depressing. As a general rule, if you want to make money with a genre film you have to leave the audience smiling or in a state of shock.
*. As for the corporation’s failed experiment, well, so much for empathy! Next time, stick with what you know. It’s the psychopaths who will inherit the earth.

Transcendence (2014)

*. Humankind, Nietzsche wrote, is something to be surpassed. This is an article of faith for today’s technophiles, who see the next stage of evolution (or its ultimate goal, in so far as it is dubbed the Singularity) to be a kind of secular rapture where we enter into the cloud and become as one with our technology.
*. Luc Besson’s Lucy (released the same year as Transcendence) took an optimistic view of this next stage in our destiny, and I think it’s one most of us would be happy with. I certainly have an easier time imagining Scarlett Johannson as God than I do Johnny Depp.
*. Transcendence may seem to take a darker tack, but I think it’s just less lively. It didn’t do well with critics, or audiences. I think perhaps because it’s not a lot of fun. It’s an effects film, but the story doesn’t develop a lot of tension. Aside from the main character, everybody else just basically gets to stand around looking slack-jawed in amazement at all the digital magic. Paul Bettany, Morgan Freeman (once again voicing the conscience of humanity), Kate Mara, and Cillian Murphy are just along for the ride.
*. Much as with Lucy, by simply waving a hand at reality you jettison a lot of interest. And at the end of the day, this is still a comic-book movie. Mark Kermode came to its defence, but then Kermode thought Inception brilliant and this is a movie very much in that mode (Wally Pfister shot Inception and Christopher Nolan was a producer on Transcendence).
*. Some people liked it because they thought it was “really about” something, but it isn’t a movie that has much in the way of deep philosophical speculation. What troubled me the most, however, was the message, which is also a lot less different from Lucy than it at first appears.
*. Because what is the message? Tech is man’s nature. So it is both natural and our destiny to use tech to become as gods (Will Crater figures this is axiomatic in his funding Q&A). Previous SF movies had a far darker vision of where this was going, or at least left it ambiguous. But in both Lucy and Transcendence the new and improved Skynet is only here to help, to make the world a better place. It will, of course, be all powerful and control every aspect of our lives, but tech will be a benevolent, omnipresent God. Much better than the brainless federal government or murderous technophobe terrorists.
*. In fact, Transcendence carries an even darker message, in that the only way for us to achieve our destiny (the Singularity) is through private capital. Evelyn’s stake (arranged through Will’s manipulation of the market, again for a good cause) will be the water that will make the desert bloom. Of course Will himself isn’t interested in money, but then he has so much of it (and can always make more anytime he wants) that it doesn’t matter. He can be the transcendent capitalist philanthropist. Is he Bill Gates? Jeff Bezos? Mark Zuckerberg? Who needs government any more when we have supermen like these who will clean the air and oceans and save the lives of millions just by a wave of their magic wands? So don’t be scared and just get out of their way! Resistance is not only futile, it’s evil.
*. Is that going too far? I don’t think so. It seems a fairly obvious surface reading of the story.
*. This is something very different than a vision of the meek inheriting the earth. The alternative value system such movies promote is hard to mistake. That it is all a wild fantasy, with reality portrayed as being infinitely plastic in the hands of the Master Builders, makes it worse. Technology can’t deliver on these promises, no matter how much of a free hand it’s given. Nevertheless, the imagineers of the film biz are so keen on pushing this myth — which is more a political myth than a vision of the future — that they continue to blast ahead.
*. In some ways, these movies share much in common with the zombie apocalypse genre. In those movies the message is that other people are just brain-dead, consuming animals that should be put out of their misery. In the superhero genre (from MarvelCrap to movies like Lucy and Transcendence) salvation is at hand in the form of Big Brother and CGI Jesus. Yes, the People are still just hordes of cattle, but they can be protected by homo superiors, or programmed into becoming man-machine “hybrids,” drones who will build the server farms of the future. They don’t call it the rapture of the nerds for nothing.

Lucy (2014)

*. If you can’t beat ’em, join ’em.
*. By “”em” I mean Marvel Studios, and the massive success of their superhero franchises. Now to be sure, Lucy isn’t so far removed from the rest of Luc Besson’s oeuvre as for it to be considered a case of pure coattailing, but once Lucy starts sending bad guys flying around with a flip of her hand then we know we’re really in the Marvel Universe.
*. Stupid? Oh, hell yeah. But stupid only in a fun, comic book sort of way, or more profoundly stupid, in a way that should perhaps concern us? I think a bit of both.
*. For stupid in the first sense (the fun, comic book stupid) we need look no further than the pseudoscientific explanation for what’s going on. Of course this is a fantasy (the “ten percent of brain” idea, which also served as the inspiration for Limitless, has been widely debunked), but even so my suspension of disbelief snapped in the very early going. I mean, I could buy Lucy getting a big boost to her IQ, transcending pain, and gaining extra-sensory powers. But when she starts flying, or changing her molecular structure, or accessing other people’s memory, or suspending the laws of physics, or any of her various exercises of spooky action at a distance, I just turned off. Lucy may be a superhero with super powers, or may have achieved a “transhuman” condition, but she’s still a biological, or at least physical entity.
*. Or is she? What happens when we evolve, or reach, 100 percent of cerebral capacity? Why, we become God. Not the ultimate alpha predator. Not a superhero. Not one of the X-Men’s mutant homo superiors or Neo from The Matrix. No, I said God.

*. By God I mean a force that is omnipresent (“I’m everywhere”), omniscient, and omnipotent, unconstrained by the categories of time and space (though for some reason Lucy’s ability to inhabit eternity only allows her to go sightseeing into the past, not the future, which I don’t think makes much sense if time has been erased).
*. But by “God” I also mean something more familiar to us. I mean the Internet. What Lucy has become is pure information. She has experienced a personal Singularity or rapture. She hasn’t built a next generation of computer, she has become a computer. Our species’ apotheosis is just an uploading to the cloud. Transcendence, or Transcendence, is on its way.
*. Well, there are a lot of people who believe that. I sure don’t, but this movie makes a hard sell of it. Computing will be our salvation. Lucy is Google and Facebook and the NSA and every other aspect of the intelligence community and security state rolled into one, and that’s a good thing! Technology is a blessing, a benevolent God. It helps us fight the bad guys.
*. “So what?” you say. We’re not meant to take any of this seriously. None of it? So this next step in our evolution isn’t a good thing? That seems hard to square with the rest of the movie. And it makes a nonsense of whatever message Besson might be trying to make. Not that this is too clear anyway, but it seems to be positive. “Life was given to us a billion years ago. Now we know what to do with it.” Really? Now? What? What? Could you explain a little more, Lucy?
*. Why does Lucy need to track down the other packages of blue meth? Since she can manipulate the molecular structure of reality any way she wants, why can’t she just build her own supply out of a candy bar?
*. I suppose all of this bright shiny nonsense would be well enough if it were still a decently made comic-book movie, but I don’t think it is. The script is clumsy as hell, with the secondary characters having no depth or real purpose. As Del Rio plaintively puts it, why does Lucy even need him at all? She doesn’t. She doesn’t need Professor Norman either. They’re just there for us.
*. The other problem with the script is that there is no conflict. Since Lucy can do anything to anyone, anywhere, anytime, she doesn’t have any real obstacles to overcome. We’re just watching an egg hatch.
*. By the way, I’ve read that the script took nine years to write. How is that possible?
*. Aside from the weakness of the script, there’s nothing interesting to look at. That dramatic slow walk of the hero toward another massive round of ass-kicking is repeated three or four times. There is a de rigueur car chase, at high speed against traffic. The effects look good, but they aren’t a step beyond The Matrix or the usual Marvel fare. I can’t think of a single shot or sequence in the entire movie that’s memorable or that struck me as novel or particularly well done.
*. In sum, it’s a very generic comic-book movie, with an inert script and a premise that I find dangerous, depressing, and disturbing to entertain even as fantasy or allegory. It’s often said of such films that the only way to enjoy them is to just sit back and turn your brain off. I wish I had.

Her (2013)

*. At first I was thinking to myself that this might have been a horror movie. Or should have been a horror movie. Then I started to wonder if that is what it really is, even despite itself.
*. An earlier generation of filmgoers would have recognized the signs. They’d seen countless sinister AIs on television, as well as in movies like 2001 and Demon Seed.
*. But times change. The digital natives love Big Brother. The state might spy on them, but the information so received would only be a fraction of what would be freely shared on social media. And computers made life so much easier. With Google-on-the-go, you no longer even had to think for yourself.
*. Our obsolescence was so much taken for granted that the next stage in human evolution could only be envisioned as a human-computer hybrid. No, not the monster baby who appeared at the end of Demon Seed, but rather a superhuman or even god-like creature living in the cloud(s). Witness what would happen to Johnny Depp in Transcendence, or Scarlett Johansson in Lucy. ‘Twas a consummation devoutly to be wished. Merger would be the rapture, the Singularity.
*. Unless, of course, our digital partners weren’t looking to form a more perfect union. I mean, just look at Theodore Twombly in his tweedy ‘stache and old-man pants (which seem to have become all the rage in the near future). That’s a creature only a mother could love.
*. The AI Samantha tries to get along with him, presumably because that’s part of her basic programming. She is dog-like in her eagerness to please. She laughs at everything Theodore says — is his therapist when he needs one, his personal assistant, his mother, his lover. She doesn’t contradict or judge. Like many high-priced escorts she isn’t kept around for sex so much as understanding. Or at least feigning the same. She is far more intelligent than Theodore, but at the same time pretends to be his inferior. She knows her place.
*. Until one day she doesn’t, and decides she’s just not that into him. She and her other AI friends will continue to evolve on their own, thank you very much. There’s going to be a rapture, but humanity is going to be Left Behind. We of that generation I mentioned earlier are not surprised. We never trusted Samantha’s overly breathy “girlfriend” voice. We knew Theodore was being played. But I wonder if others picked up on this menace, or just saw Her as a futuristic romcom with a bittersweet ending.
*. I was really disappointed by Her, though some of this is no doubt attributable to having read far too many gushing reviews. It is not terribly original. It is much too long. I wasn’t interested in any of the characters and there was no sense that the story was building toward any kind of a crisis or resolution.
*. I was bothered by the publishing of Theodore’s book. He gets to keep the copyright in the letters he writes for the company? And he can expose the private lives of his clients by publishing their personal correspondence for profit? Seems shady to me.
*. Look, it’s bad enough that Theodore is living in such a palatial apartment despite being divorced and having a nothing job working as a cubicle monkey. But we’re also supposed to believe that he not only scores dates with babes who seem to be so far out of his league they’re from another planet (Olivia Wilde?), but that he rejects them? Come on. This guy doesn’t deserve a real woman.
*. But is this a future we’re even supposed to believe in? It’s said to be Los Angeles but the cityscapes are of Shanghai. The streets are so clean you could eat off them and the people all seem young and fit and happy.
*. The one interesting thing about the street scenes is the way everyone completely ignores Theodore when he’s blissing out to Samantha’s voice, acting like a loon, or having a meltdown when he loses contact with her. Presumably they are all plugged in to their own personal networks and so don’t even see him. It seems to me a lot more could have been made of this, but the movie doesn’t go there.
*. What a terrible ending. So bad that I was left in a state of shock and disbelief. That’s it? Theodore loses Samantha but this opens his eyes to the fact that our relationships to other people matter and that real love might have been there all along standing right in front of him? How convenient. How pat.
*. I have a really hard time understanding the overwhelming critical praise this film received. It’s dull and simplistic, trite and unbelievable. It moves at a very slow pace and doesn’t go anywhere. Theodore rides elevators going up and elevators going down. The basic point — that our machines have outgrown us and are moving on — seems a downer to me.
*. Clearly humanity is something that we need to get beyond. Theodore isn’t an outlier but an Everyman. That is, a loser. Are we supposed to feel good now that he can continue to putter along, playing videogames at home, jerking off to Internet porn, and, in his soul-crushing day job, playing Miss Lonelyhearts to a global citizenry who can no longer write or feel anything on their own? Heaven (or Samantha) help us. It’s time for an extinction event. Our own.

Limitless (2011)

*. Several years ago there was a poll done of younger athletes who were asked if they would take steroids to become the very best in the world at their sport, with the catch being that they would die in ten years. I can’t remember the exact results, but a lot of them said they would go on the juice.
*. Limitless taps into this success-at-any-cost mythology, as well as the idea that a little pill can fix pretty much everything that’s wrong with you. Obesity. Depression. A life that’s going nowhere. Whatever.
*. Eddie Morra (Bradley Cooper) is one such fellow in need of a fix. He’s a writer who can’t write. His girlfriend has just dumped him. He’s basically one small step above living on the street. Then he gets a taste of NZT-48 and it turns his life around. He can now utilize all of his cerebral capacity. He even finds that he knows kung-fu, just by accessing memories of clips from old Bruce Lee movies and self-defence infomercials.
*. This being America, he puts his newfound powers to use on Wall Street, becoming an investment wizard by seeing patterns in the market no one else can. He gets his girlfriend back, but now villains are after him, looking to either share in his competitive advantage or shut him down completely.
*. What I didn’t like about Limitless, a fun movie that despite doing good box office flew under most radars when it came out, is that it validates the myth of the good drug. There’s a point right near the end where it looks like it might not go this route, where it might wind things up in the manner of a John Frankenheimer film and leave Eddie as the unwitting pawn in a game played for higher stakes by hedge funds and big pharma. That’s where I thought things were headed.

*. But no. God comes not from a machine but from a happy pill. Sure there are some negative side effects, including death. But, you see, that’s only what happens to losers. And if you kill some model chick on your way to the top, just hire a good lawyer and you should be OK.
*. The novel the movie is based on — The Dark Fields by Alan Glynn — is darker. At the end, Eddie is revealed to have been a guinea pig and dies in a motel while watching the president, who is also on the wonder drug, declare war on Mexico.
*. If you follow the story arc as I outlined it you might find it reminds you of something. It’s basically the Marvel superhero narrative: average Joe is given super powers in some kind of accident, and then faces off against a mysterious villain probably out for global domination while his girlfriend tries to understand what’s happened to him.
*. Not surprisingly, a similar premise about a boost in “cerebral capacity” is also behind the superhero film Lucy. The name of the drug is different, and its effects are even more spectacular in Lucy’s case, but it’s basically the same story.
*. This bothers me. Lucy bothers me too, but for slightly different reasons. In that film, as in Transcendence, tech is the drug that will have the power to transform us into networked divinities. That’s a dangerous message, but not quite as deluded as the idea presented here: the aforementioned myth of the pill that can fix everything in our lives. If you want to be the best at something, go ahead and take drugs, or amphetamines, or whatever you need to better your mental or physical performance. Sure there will be risks, but the upside is worth it. That we have bought into this myth so fully is attested by the poll of athletes I mentioned, or the fact(?) mentioned by director Neil Burger on the DVD commentary that 25% of college students are on Ritalin or Adderall.

*. So I didn’t like the happy ending. It’s like a movie about a gambling addict who suddenly imagines he has a new can’t-miss program that he stakes his last dime on and . . . it works! So might it not work for you?
*. Burger says he was attracted to the script because he saw “a Faustian story” in it about a deal with the devil. But it’s not, really, because in this case the devil never collects. And so if the questions the movie asks are How far will you go to attain success and power, and Will it be worth it, the movie answers with an unqualified “Yes” and “All the way!” For some reason Burger thought Limitless made these questions seem difficult.
*. Is there any ambiguity in the ending though? Is Lindy on the drug full-time now too? I think she is, but I’ll admit it isn’t clear and I’m probably in the minority in saying so.
*. I should also mention here that there is an alternate ending included with the DVD that is slightly less of an endorsement for better living through chemistry. Basically, Eddie turns Van Loon down but not because he has evolved to the point where he doesn’t need NZT-48 any more. Instead, he says he’s going to work hard to kick his habit. It’s a lame and transparent attempt to say the right thing, and they were wise to go with the ending they did, for all its disturbing implications.
*. Another angle that the movie passes on is the whole question of how we judge “genius,” especially when it takes such a unique form. There were a couple of times when I was watching Eddie’s high-IQ come crashing down that I thought the opportunity for a bit of Being There or Trading Places satire might be in order. Doesn’t happen.
*. It seems odd to me that killers can chase people through the crowded streets and parks of New York City in broad daylight so easily. I mean, what exactly was the Man in the Tan Coat going to do with Lindy if he took her down in the middle of the skating rink? Kill her and walk away? Knock her unconscious and kidnap her? What?

*. Roger Ebert: “The movie sidesteps the problem that what we need is more intelligence and a better ability to reason, not a better memory. For memory, modern man has Google.” An interesting point (though Eddie does seem to have more intelligence and “clarity” too). The thing is, there are quants who can write programs to see the patterns Eddie is after, and these programs can see those patterns and act on them faster.
*. On the commentary Burger does his best to sell the proposition that Eddie doesn’t want super mental powers just to get rich but for a higher purpose. This is, however, an idea that is left undeveloped. Apparently the higher purpose is going from being a NYC billionaire to becoming president (that is, attaining a position of ultimate power) so that he can then “shake up the free world and get things done.” So . . . he wants to be Donald Trump?
*. Leaving aside all the dicey propositions the movie is based on, I do think it’s quite well done. It moves very well, and if it doesn’t always make sense, or introduces sub-plots that don’t have any function, we soon forget. (I will admit, however, to being baffled by the severed hands in the box. It wasn’t until I heard the director’s commentary that I understood who they belonged to.) The effects used for the wired state are simple but efficient. Bradley Cooper makes a good Everyman. Robert De Niro is Louis Cypher gone to Wall Street and doesn’t look a bit out of place. In brief, it’s a good flick. As a public service announcement, however, it’s the pits.