For better or for worse, last year’s Joker dominated the pop culture landscape. It sparked impassioned conversations in all corners of the internet about everything from mental healthcare and violence to fake laughing and the safety hazards of dancing on stairs. It also provoked some thoughtful debate about the nature and future of the comic book and superhero movie...
...As a genre, superhero films have dominated the box office over the last decade, and all signs point towards even more capes and masks as we head into the 2020s; but with the conclusion of the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s “Infinity Saga” with last year’s Avengers: Endgame, perhaps it’s time for the superhero film to take on a new look, to become something a little bit different. We’re already seeing filmmakers willing to twist and bend the parameters of the superhero movie, as with Birds of Prey and the upcoming The New Mutants, mixing in elements from other genres to create something fresh.
Enter Transference, subtitled Escape the Dark in certain sources, a horror/sci-fi/superhero hybrid from director Matthew Ninaber and writers Jennifer Lloyd, Aaron Tomlin, and Ninaber. The story centers on twin siblings Josh (Jeremy Ninaber) and Emma (Melissa Joy Boerger), whose childhood was marred by tragedy when their father perished in a car accident they both witnessed. Such a trauma is enough to shake anyone’s foundation, but Josh and Emma also bear a dark secret. Emma possesses special abilities, abilities that allow her to move objects at will, endow her with unnatural strength, and even manipulate reality; but Emma struggles to control these supernatural gifts, particularly when she feels distressed or angry. Twenty years after the death of their father, Josh, feeling desperate, places Emma in a bunker-like compound as a last ditch effort to keep her hidden and therefore safe. But someone has found Josh and Emma. Someone who seeks to remove Emma from Josh’s protection for their own sinister purposes, and the resulting conflict could spell disaster not just for the damaged siblings, but for the entire world.
Transference is a solemn, broody film that cherry picks the most interesting tropes from all manner of speculative fiction subgenres and fits them together in a weird, macabre puzzle that refuses to be labeled or pigeonholed. Though not every piece fits perfectly, Ninaber is able to smooth over the rough patches with technique and style. He is clearly a student of film and filmmaking, not just in the technical aspects but in the distinctive nuances of how film can tell a story the way no other medium can. Ninaber, along with co-cinematographer Brent Tremain and co-editor Jeff Weber, uses a number of clever filmmaking techniques from sounds to trick angles to well-timed cuts to tell a story that’s just as superhero as any Spider-Man or Thor without the big studio budget. The special effects are minimal but look polished and would be at-home in any Marvel or DC flick, and the stunts and fight choreography are equal parts brutal and balletic.
Though there’s plenty of action, the script is careful to allow time for both the audience and the characters to breathe. For every Fight Club-esque shirtless brawl Josh gets into as a means to support himself and his sister, there’s a scene of characters debating the nature of Emma’s abilities and whether she needs to be “fixed” or freed. The narrative isn’t always cohesive, particularly in the beginning, and the disjointed timeline can make it difficult to establish a sense of place and follow what’s going on. The source of Emma’s powers also remains unclear, though this does figure into the third act somewhat and fits easily into the “next step in human evolution” box a la X-Men. Boiled down, this hybrid film isn’t so much a superhero movie anyway, even as it pulls and bucks from traditional genre tropes in equal measure; it’s about the relationship between Josh and Emma, about lies and family secrets, guilt and the long-enduring effects of trauma. As such, the movie rests on the shoulders of Ninaber and Boerger, both of whom do just fine but don’t get to spend nearly enough time on screen with each other. The result is that when they do interact, it takes some suspension of disbelief on the viewer’s part to frame them as brother and sister, and while the film doesn’t quite earn its ending, there’s no denying the grim satisfaction it elicits.
Ninaber and his team have an obvious flair for stylized, studio-quality filmmaking. They’ve taken a dash of Brightburn (2019), a dollop of Chronicle (2012), and sprinkled in a mixture of Split (2017) and Midnight Special (2016) to brew something slick, dark, and surprising; a palette cleanser for the superhero-weary filmgoer that’s seeking something more from the tight-wearing, galaxy-guarding crowd. Less skyscraper smashing and more domestic drama, but peppered with some serious smackdowns and a healthy dose of telekinesis. Though it can be tough to track at times, Transference is an attractive, competent film that’s looking to shake up some dusty genre conventions. Let it lull you into the dark and you won’t want to escape.
Suit up with Transference when it powers onto VOD March 10th from Epic Pictures, followed by a Blu-ray release on March 24th.
By Craig Ranallo