Transcendence, the directorial debut of Wally Pfister, was a science-fiction blockbuster released last year that was condemned as a critical failure. Many reviews criticised the film for its inability to contain the expansive concept and the scale of the story. An undiscussed element of the film which may have also impacted its reception is the structure of the narrative and the unusual ideals that it presents when compared to typical Hollywood fare. The following analysis will look at how Transcendence subverts the standard model of story-telling by reversing religious and scientific values – and by making Johnny Depp Jesus.0.
In The Hero with a Thousand Faces Joseph Campbell looked at the archetypal hero that traversed the mythologies of ancient cultures, theorising that there was really only one overarching story structure, which he termed the ‘monomyth’. This universal metanarrative applies not only to theology but contemporary narrative forms such as cinema – Hollywood especially – appearing to reinstate the same values now as they did centuries ago. Reduced to the extreme the monomyth can be seen as the journey of a hero who has his faith tested through trials of doubt before he can achieve success on his quest. Inherent in this story structure is the conflict between faith and doubt, attributes that I would argue (and have argued again and again) are aligned with religion and science respectively: with faith treated as heroic or noble, and doubt a sign of weakness or ill-intention.
The hero is typically the protagonist of the story whom the audience will follow and support. Transcendence is unusual in that it has no clear protagonist; or rather it has one then kills him in the first ten minutes of the film. With no guide through the narrative, the audience are presented two opposing perspectives that represent faith and doubt, and so experience the trials of the hero first hand. Crucially though, the positions of religion and science, essentially good and evil, are reversed so that the audience truly doesn’t know whether they should be believing or not; whether to have faith or doubt. (more…)
After binge-watching Breaking Bad in its entirety, I felt I had witnessed Walter White’s Heisenbergian decline in such a short space of time that I had picked up on something. A theory: thatBreaking Bad shows that there is no moral foundation for those without religious belief – especially not Walter White because science.
Breaking Bad is a show that follows its protagonist Walter White from hero to antagonist, unusually aligning the audience with a character who gradually becomes more immoral and unlikeable. Walt’s descent is sparked by a lack of faith that leaves him with an amorality based in science. Essentially the first episode begins by establishing a loveable family man who suffers the toils of incredibly bad luck. This is in fact a retelling of the Story of Job which aims to explain why bad things happen to good people; a religious fable that reinstates the importance of faith.(more…)
The mainstream romantic-comedy has steadily become saturated with genre conventions and narrative devices that seem to have shaped audience expectation. A formulaic love story that relies on certain narrative hooks and character details that become almost interchangeable. This is made more noticeable by the sub-genre trends that seem to overlap as they reflect current attitudes – think the few rom-coms released in 2010 that centred on artificial insemination. The films do not not disappoint rather they play out just as suggested in the trailer. While every genre has its conventions, two recent romantic-comedies Friends With Benefits (Gluck, 2011)and (500) Days of Summer (Webb, 2009) seem to bring attention to, and in some cases overtly criticise, the tendencies of the genre. Most importantly though both films offer the promise of no ordinary love story… and both films break that promise.
Recently more films have been challenging the conventions of the romantic-comedy genre, moving away from the uniform portrayal of heterosexual, Caucasian, materialist archetypes. The anomalous box-office success Bridesmaids (Feig, 2011)was viewed as a breakthrough for depicting stronger more rounded female characters – perhaps an affectation of actually being written by women. Although this film challenged certain Hollywood clichés and stereotypes it also appeared to reinstate and reaffirm others – such as the heterosexual, Caucasian materialist. (more…)
Science and scientific values have long been denounced in cinema, shown to be a product of an egocentric personality that is somehow less human than others. In the last decade there has been an ongoing trend that is fighting against this representation – beginning to subvert stereotyped characters and narratives that promote the alienation of science. Although this light-spirited backlash has experienced an increasing popularity, there still remains in Hollywood the stereotyping and vilification of the scientific mind. A Dangerous Method and Hysteria, both released this year, appear to demonstrate a subtle undermining of scientific values that harks back to the classical opposition in Hollywood.
Martha Marcy May Marlene (2012) looks at fragility of the human mind and how it can be manipulated, in the process contorting personality and identity. It follows a young girl as ideals are imposed on her from conflicting perspectives of consumerist society and counter culture community – ultimately fracturing her sense of self. The following analysis will look at the crisis of identity that is titled in the film, as Martha becomes Marcy May and finally Marlene.
Martha (Elizabeth Olsen) is a young girl who, along with her older sister Lucy (Sarah Paulson), had been abandoned by her father after the death of their mother. Seeking refuge and a new family she joins an alternative community in the Catskill Mountains of New York. The film begins two years after this induction as Martha flees the commune to her sister’s scenic lakeside retreat in Connecticut – her personality fragmented by her abusive experience.
Faced with a river, a scorpion enlists the help of a frog to ferry it across the water on its back. Fearful for being stung, the scorpion explains that if it were to sting the frog they would both drown. Alas, halfway across the river the scorpion stings the frog. As they begin to sink to their death the frog asks the scorpion why it had doomed them both, receiving the reply that it is in its nature.
The broken halo of a violent hero
Ryan Gosling plays the part of a nameless Hollywood stuntman/ mechanic/ getaway driver turned breadwinning moral avenger in Nicolas Winding Refn’s Drive – subverting the strong-silent type of classic cinema and, like Refn’s ValhallaRising and Bronson, calling into question the nature of violent heroes on screen. The following analysis will examine how the hero of Drive is made to appear reserved and unpredictable in an effort to make him unknowable – but really how his actions are undermined by his childlike sensibilities and confused sense of self.
The hitman has become a cultural figure that has undergone various aesthetic and moral transformations in cinema. The most typical and somewhat surprising characteristic of the contracted-killer is that he or she is shown to be a solitary figure worthy of empathy or even admiration; a sleek and often charming loner that the story is attracted to – suspending the audience’s judgement or allowing them to explore his/her inner conflict in order to understand their motivation or veiled humility. Amongst his description of the subcategories of hitmen in his chapter of ‘Crime Culture: Figuring Criminality in Fiction and Film’, Andrew Spicer describes the aestheticised version of the hitman as the ‘Angel of Death’: “a highly masculine fantasy of total self-sufficiency”. This increasingly recognisable antagonist and the subsequent notion of fantastical perfection is precisely what Ben Wheatley challenges in his latest feature – Kill List (2011).