The Pitch: The Nolan system.
The Review: For all that you can say about cinema, it’s not a career path that lends itself naturally to progression. While the likes of Steven Soderbergh have mastered more than one skill in film production, you don’t hear many stories of key grips that went onto thriving careers as make-up artists. If there is a natural pairing of professions in the film industry, you’d think it’s director and cinematographer, the two people most concerned with getting the image right on screen, but when pretty much every list of famous cinematographers turned directors has Jan “Speed 2” De Bont on it, it’s clearly not an easy transition to make. Full marks for effort to Wally Pfister, then, for deciding to break away from a twenty year career in cinematography and a lengthy collaboration with Christopher Nolan to making his own films.
It’s also decent marks for attainment when it comes to the visuals. Pfister’s films have always had a compelling visual quality and he’s stuck to his principles, shooting Transcendence on traditional 35mm film. In collaboration with another Brit, this time his own cinematographer Jess Hall (veteran of Brit films including Hot Fuzz and Son Of Rambow), Transcendence balances beautiful moments of intimate slo-mo with grander, sweeping vistas. Unlike other blockbusters that live just to excite your inner fanboy with a robot riding a giant dinosaur, Transcendence aims for something subtler. The stock middle-America townscape is a bit of a cliché, but that’s one weak link in Pfister’s composition.
For those getting their hopes up that Pfister’s film could be of equal quality in all the other departments, it’s time to unceremoniously dash those hopes. That even extends as far as general shot composition; while certain brief moments might look good, as a whole the film is a dull canvass of browns and whites and nothing sticks in the mind for more than a few minutes. That pales in comparison to some of the acting, which is led by a dialled-in (probably on a 56k modem) performance from Johnny Depp. Once Depp’s settled on an accent, he sleepwalks through the film, sapping interest out of scenes while barely even trying. Rebecca Hall makes a bit of an effort, but everyone else, from Paul Bettany to Morgan Freeman and Cillian Murphy, wanders around in a general state of confusion, wondering where their character development has disappeared to and failing to invest the tired script with any sense of conviction.
There are numerous problems with that script, and not only does the dialogue fail to convince in individual scenes, the script as a whole is a damb squib. Transcendence thinks it has a couple of good ideas, but anyone who’s ever seen more than a couple of episodes of any sci-fi series on TV won’t be surprised at any part of the “human consciousness in a computer” plot, and Michael Crichton’s 2002 novel Prey – which wasn’t that great itself – was a far better exploration of the dramatic possibilities of nanotechnology, a thread which plays out laughably here. To top it all off, the script begins at the end and then flashes back, killing any dramatic tension stone dead. Most of the film’s ideas about technology are laughably poor, but not laughable enough to tip the film into the “so bad it’s good” category. When Christopher Nolan comes up with films about dream worlds, wormholes and men who dress as bats and fight crime, you have to wonder what drove Pfister to trot out such a succession of barely warmed-over clichés that make you yearn for some paint to watch drying. Sad to say, but Wally Pfister’s first film makes Jan De Bont’s directorial career look like a constant procession of genius by comparison; even Morgan Freeman reading out binary code for two hours would have been more appealing.
Why see it at the cinema: As I’ve said, there are some lovely looking individual frames, it’s just a shame they never form into anything resembling a coherent whole. But they do look great on a giant cinema screen.
What about the rating? Rated 12A for moderate violence and bloody images. The BBFC rating advice also indicates that, “there is also a scene in which a couple embrace and kiss.” As that’s in the rating advice, does it mean that embracing is only to be witnessed by 11 year olds with the consent of their parents?
My cinema experience: A Sunday evening at my local Cineworld would not normally be heavily populated, but for some reason this was a big draw so I was sat third row from the front. Someone sat in the middle of the bank of seats in front of me, and then refused to move when another couple came in looking for the two seats either side. That confrontation, as brief as it was, proved to be more interesting that anything projected onto the screen in front of them.
The Score: 3/10
The Review: When you become immersed in something, it’s easy to lose perspective sometimes, especially when it comes to money. I can remember, a few years into my real world career, being in discussion about a forecast for the coming year. I don’t recall the exact numbers, but it was along the lines of whether, say, 424 or 426 was the right number to use. Only when I left the meeting did it truly sink in that the unit we were discussing was pounds. In millions. (Thankfully I wasn’t the one making decisions about what to do with that money.) It’s all too easy to become blasé or to ignore the risks of managing such huge sums, so should we have any sympathy for those who lost their jobs on the banking crisis, given that they may have caused it in the first place.
Margin Call attempts to get under the skin of the bankers who caused these issues, or who might have brought about the wider downturn in our global economy. There’s a whole host of players and levels involved: we start with Stanley Tucci, who’s sensed something going wrong, but can’t put his finger on it and is caught up in the cull on his floor. His parting gesture is to get underlings Zachary Quinto and Aasif Mandvi involved, who then have to start escalating up the chain of command, and by the middle of the night everyone from Kevin Spacey to Jeremy Irons is involved. It’s clear that the likes of Demi Moore have known something’s been up for a while, but as the scale of the problem hits home, loyalties shift and everyone tries to have a chair to sit on when the music stops.
If that last paragraph felt somewhat lacking in specific detail of the issues the bankers are facing, then that’s actually a fair description for watching the film itself. Last year’s documentary Inside Job proves that it’s possible to get to the heart of the complex issues and processes that have caused the financial meltdown, but Margin Call takes completely the opposite tack, consisting of lots of men in suits pointing at screens with furrowed brows, but the actual drama of what’s happening is kept at arm’s length. It’s easy for us to see with hindsight the consequences of the drama, but Margin Call relies too much on that hindsight and fails to inject any sense of drama or understanding into the events at the core of the situation, when it could have taken that opportunity without compromising the rest of the narrative.
So Margin Call relies on the strength of its smaller moments, mainly two or three-hander scenes where the various characters gaze at their navels and contemplate how matters will unfold, and those tend to depend entirely on the quality of the actors in that particular scene. The outstanding performer, as so often, is Kevin Spacey, alternating between rallying speeches and a worn down frustration seemingly at will. Jeremy Irons, Stanley Tucci and Paul Bettany also put in great work, Quinto (who’s also a producer) does what he can with the slightly thankless role he’s given himself, but everyone else involved varies from the eminently forgettable (Simon Baker) to the downright uninteresting (Demi Moore). Margin Call never really even manages to become the sum of these parts; taken as a series of vignettes on the lives of bankers, they’re interesting enough, but the film never really rings true to its potential source. The Margin Call on this one: it’s just about watchable, but unlikely to last longer than a night in your memory.
Why see it at the cinema: Seeing this in a cinema will improve the theatricality of the two handers, and there’s a scene on top of a skyscraper that’s vaguely cinematic.
The Score: 6/10