"Transcendence" is a serious science fiction movie filled with big ideas and powerful images, but it never quite coheres, and the end is a copout.
Either I'm wrong or most of the movie critics in America are mistaken. I persist in the conviction that Alex Proyas's "Knowing" is a splendid thriller and surprisingly thought-provoking. I saw the movie at an 8 p.m. screening on Monday, March 16, returned home and wrote my review on deadline. No other reviews existed at that time. Later in the week, I was blind-sided by the negative reaction. And I mean really negative.
"Knowing" is opening well at the box office, leading the weekend with an estimated $25 million. With a budget at around $50 million, that means it will be a money-maker for Summit Entertainment. But the critical reaction has been savage.
I went looking at the various online roundups of critical opinion. Of course such averages mean little, but they give you a notion of how people are thinking. I usually don't peruse them, but this time I was fascinated. What was it about "Knowing" that made it so hated?
• On Metacritic, gets a 39 average. The reader vote is 8.1.
• On Rotten Tomatoes, the Meter stands at 24, and only 15% of the "Top Critics" liked it.
• On IMDb's user votes, the "median" was 9/10, but the "arithmetic mean" was 7.7/10. Of 397 votes, 191 were "10." IMDb goes with the mean.
• On MRQE, only one of 43 agrees with me.
This is astonishing. Let's suppose I was completely wrong. Even if I was how bad could the possibly movie be? Half as good as the slasher film "Shuttle?" A third as good as "The Last House on the Left?" (2009) If nothing else, it was a great popcorn movie: A time capsule contains perfect predictions of the following 50 years, a hero scientist races to avert disaster, two kids hear whispers in their ears, there are sensational special effects, mysterious figures loom in the woods, and at the end the kids are taken to another planet as Earth is incinerated. Plus a cerebral debate at MIT about whether the universe is deterministic or random.
Believe me, I know the plot is preposterous. That's part of the charm. You go to an end-of-the-world thriller starring Nicolas Cage looking scared to death, and you're in for a dime, in for a dollar. I love to dissect improbabilities in movies, but with "Knowing" I simply didn't care. I was carried by the energy. The premise, about that little girl in 1959 sealing up her letter, is preposterous. Every ad starts with that. What were you expecting, the Scientific American?
I wrote a blog discussing the movie [link below]. Right now it has nearly 250 comments. Most of my readers agreed with me. Some thought it stank. What interested me was how they discussed the movie. There seemed to be two big problems in some minds: Nicolas Cage, and the movie's Biblical parallels.
Let's start with Cage. Some readers said they avoid his movies on principle. Many found him guilty of over-acting. A critic was quoted who referred to his "fright wig," which is just mean-spirited snark. I found this reaction puzzling. Cage has two speeds, intense and intenser. I like both speeds. I find him an intriguing actor because he takes chances. He's an actor without speed limits. You want an Elvis who parachutes into Vegas? A weatherman whose viewers throw fast food at him? An explorer of the national treasures buried far beneath Washington? He's your go-to guy.
He is also a superb actor. I cite "Leaving Las Vegas," "Moonstruck," "Adaptation," "Bringing Out the Dead." I have great affection for Harrison Ford, George Clooney and Brad Pitt. But can they go rockabilly like Nic did in "Wild at Heart?" Not that I liked the movie, but it's a good question. With him it's a lion-tamer on a high-wire. Anybody can play the ringmaster.
Now to the Biblical overtones. The movie has generated enormous interest because it seems, some say, to be based on the Book of Ezekiel, and the plot fulfills prophecies about the end of the world, visitation by aliens, wheels with wheels, and so on. I'm not as expert on Ezekiel as I should be, but I can see the parallels -- especially since it has been pointed out to me that the figures at the end might be angels, might be aliens, or might be one resembling the other.
Alex Proyas says he has no opinion on the question. Juliet Snowden, an author of the screenplay, tells me, "I will never tell." When I saw those glowing figures, I fully expected them to spread their wings, but they walked with the children into their spacecraft, which resembled a geodesic structure within rotating wheels. Several readers assured me that the figures indeed had wings -- but you might miss them, as they were wisps of light.
One famous interpretation of Ezekiel is that he describes an Earth visitation by aliens arriving in a spacecraft made of wheels within wheels. The film's appearance of these figures (four, just as he reports) and their vehicle seems to correspond with much of the first book of Ezekiel.
This is not the place for theology. Nor for settling the debate between determinism and free will, although there are many expert comments on the blog. ("About the best comments you will find on the Web" -- Computer World magazine) Nor, indeed, for deciding if the figures are supernatural or natural. It doesn't matter. The movie is entertaining and involving. It's great afterwards to debate the Meaning of It All.
What matters, in my opinion, is that the film's ending is just about equal to the set-up. There are two possibilities: (1) Nicolas Cage heroically saves the world, or (2) No more water but the fire next time. The ending is spectacular enough that it brings closure, if not explanation. I don't have to know if the beings are aliens or angels. Nobody in the movie does.
Why some people dislike Nicolas Cage is a mystery to me. I find him a daring actor who is often successful. Why many critics dislike the ending is, I suspect, because it is "religious" or "upholds Intelligent Design," or is literally a deus ex machina. It may be a deus, all right, but that machina is a lollapalooza.
My review of "Knowing".
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