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.
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.