Transcendence and Noah: Bogus Bytes

by Armond White
Hollywood plays God and loses, but Bellocchio saves the day.

Transcendence is to the sci-fi genre what Noah is to the Bible. Both are poorly conceived reboots of a literary form into pseudo-visionary garbage. Each film also exemplifies the current trend of agnostic filmmakers playing God.

In Transcendence, Johnny Depp, as the obviously named Will Caster, unleashes his berserk world-dominating ambitions after he dies and is resurrected as an artificially intelligent computer program with the power to “overcome the limits of biology.” In Noah, filmmaker Darren Aronofsky reconceives the Biblical story of the Flood and God’s covenant with man through His servant (played by Russell Crowe) as a smart-ass thrill ride replete with politically correct ecological lessons and, above all, religious skepticism.

These films also exhibit pronounced paranoia. Transcendence distrusts the digital age and man’s dependence on the grid with frightful blather about the soul and “creating your own god”; Noah toys with religious skepticism (depicting Noah’s mission as ancient realism yet with fantasy F/X).There’s no faith or disillusionment undergirding these pictures, just superficial anti-religious attitudes in Aronofsky’s confusion regarding Noah’s inspiration or madness and the de riguer dystopia of Transcendence’s post-apocalypse frame. Between one film’s malign deity and the other’s unpredictable terrorists, the common belief is in a world inevitably gone bad. Theologian David Bentley Hart recently identified a trend of “cogitatively indolent secularism,” and a movie reviewer can just dismiss both these films as half-baked hubris.

Aronofsky continues his paranoid fear of independent thinking (shown in the hysteria of Requiem for a Dream, The Wrestler and Black Swan), this time returning to the ethnic quandary of his Orthodox Jewish debut feature Pi. In Noah he has his first coherent storyline yet again attempts to replace ethnic heritage with unthought-out cynicism and, when convenient, tradition: Russell Crowe plays Noah as a dogmatic, kick-ass patriarch subject to hallucinations about the Garden of Eden, who castigates both his family members and barbaric enemies, and who wraps an unexplained snakeskin tefillin around his arm.

Depp’s Will Caster is a Steve Jobs–sstyle whiz embodying digital-age arrogance. Instead of building an ark to save mankind, he creates a Physically Independent Neural Network (PINN) that works like both Hal 9000 and that transference thingamagig in Avatar that endows him with omniscience, gives sight to the blind, and grants super strength and speed to his followers. (He builds his City on the Hill from a dusty ghost town in the Sierra Nevada Mountains.) Depp performs mostly as an avatar on a computer screen; his clenched, affected voice might have made him a better Noah than Russell Crowe’s bald, bearded Charlton Heston by way of Williamsburg. (So might pop-messianic Patti Smith who sings the film’s agnostic theme song “Mercy.”)

The quasi religiosity in both Noah and Transcendence not only represents Hollywood’s current catering to secularism (Noah gainsays evolution and Transcendence prattles about “Evolution of the Future”) while following routine, unimaginative commercial formula. Reliance on comic-book fantasy explains Aronofsky’s jettisoning the emotional pull of Biblical recall (the respect old-fashioned Hollywood movies like The Ten Commandments and The Big Fisherman used to pay to devout moviegoers) in favor of p.c. ecological lessons and set pieces imitating such CGI blockbusters as The Lord of the Rings — an early example of the faith-debased epic. And Transcendence merely rips off the superhero mortifications of Christopher Nolan’s nihilistic The Dark Knight Batman series.

Wally Pfister, who won an Oscar photographing Nolan’s trilogy, directs Transcendence in the same obvious, depressive manner, though without Nolan’s knack for unconscionable violence. Pfister’s “darkness” is softer, loftier, playing with mystic potential (sentimentality between Caster and his faithful wife) but falling into similar disinterested, chaotic spectacle. The dim shadows and pallid vistas don’t look like a movie directed by a cinematographer but lack sparkle and depth. Big-action moments — when techno-terrorists and the U.S. government join forces to fight Caster’s takeover — resemble that terrible football-field apocalypse in The Dark Knight Returns that was exciting only for its couple of seconds before evaporating without impact. For his part, the best Aronofsky can do is herd Noah’s menagerie, two by two, looking like a pseudo-intellectual’s version of Jumanji.

Aronofsky plays with CGI in order to prove, as critic John Demetry suggested, that mankind’s technology is greater than The Creator’s; meanwhile Pfister plays Nolan as if Transcendence’s nihilism had been handed down from on high, rewriting the Y2K menace to exploit our lingering post-9/11 dread. These movies combine paranoia and cynicism. Their sketchy, stick-figure non-characters are what we get when two Hollywood approaches to playing God get no deeper than child’s play.

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Italy’s Marco Bellocchio is not a paranoid but he’s a great filmmaker. (New York’s Museum of Modern Art’s complete Bellocchio retrospective runs April 16 to May 7). His ambivalence about Communism in the 1960s films that first made his name (Fists in the Pocket, China is Near) has grown into an even richer ambivalence about the effect religious tradition has on modern Italy’s political imagination. My Mother’s Smile dealt with Italy’s matriarchal complex, Good Morning Night explored the Red Brigade moral contradictions that led to the assassination of Aldo Moro, and Bellocchio’s recent masterpiece Vincere (2010), locating the mass hysteria attending Mussolini’s rise in the true story of his abandoned first wife, should have been recognized as the great political allegory for our own recent era of presidential hysteria.

Bellocchio doesn’t believe in playing God, and that’s the subject of his new film Dormant Beauty, an epic view of Italian responses to a euthanasia case (similar to our own Terry Schiavo controversy) that avoids preaching in favor of an ever-expanding, deepening acknowledgement of personal motivations among politicians, artists, intellectuals, and different citizens across Italy’s social spectrum. Dormant Beauty recalls the kind of film the great Robert Altman might be making if he were still alive. There’ll be more to say about Dormant Beauty, the best political film of the era, when it opens commercially in June. After the junk of Noah and Transcendence, Bellocchio proves that cinema is still alive.

— Film critic Armond White is author of The Resistance: Ten Years of Pop Culture That Shook the World and the forthcoming What We Don’t Talk About When We Talk About the Movies.