Searching the term "transcendence" via Wikipedia, one finds that it is a religious concept of being detached from the material world of matter and energy, being of a greater plane of existence. That philosophy is what a militant group of survivors bestow onto an unsuspecting family in Chris Mirahangir's short film of the same name.
Chris obviously has use of many tools that many aspiring filmmakers do not have. Such is ADR. Put that together with HD cameras and professional grade editing suites, a CGI producing program, and others, a cinematic artist has themselves a high grade production facility. Chris knows how to use these tools. He is part of a generation that is bringing what some consider the highest art form into reachable reality to people who do not have such access.
We start off the film in black and white as a boy stabs at the dirt, obviously frustrated, taking in nature along with a problem he is having – his step father. The use of black and white isn't to inspire a John Cassavetes-esque grittiness. Black and white cinematography relieves the cinematographer of a lot of problems that come with lighting. Thus, it is a practical tool here. There was only one instance of an over-exposed shot in the film. Whether or not it was intentional, is unknown.
Visual motifs are at work here. This was shot in a southern western location. Plants and low lying rocks are about. How does Chris use them? The presence of the rocks is more stated the farther along the narrative we go (the more dire the situation, for the sparse couple of characters we are introduced to, the more we see a visual allusion to a dystopia). These are also used as an example of framing. The rocks and the wild grasses are of rough textures, particularly the grass when the breeze is about. Have a human character sit in it, and you draw attention with the juxtaposing. A difference between the grass and the rocks come about when height is taken into account. In sitting, people are above the grass. When the rocks become a visual motif, they usually dominate the human characters. There are other examples of framing; such is the reflection off of a mirror-like demon eye, or the space between an open car door and the car itself.
Now, let’s talk how the human character's interactions tell the story. We have a set up not unlike CHILDREN OF THE CORN, but add two characters. Maybe THE LOST BOYS is a better comparison. A step father, getting his family back from vacation, has problems with his adopted son. Maybe this is a personal story. The step father says his piece to the rebellious son and continues the ride back home. But another interruption crosses their path - a wrecked camping site. Blood splattered remnants are about. Curiosity kills the cat, quite literally (though it takes some time) by the aforementioned militant survivors, who are hiding from a demon (visually referenced via the bird we see the step son look at in the beginning).
A question that pulsed through my mind was whether or not there was going to be an APOCALYPSE NOW kind of character arc, where the demons everyone fears are outweighed by the demons within the hearts of the characters. The stepfather wants his new son killed off. He also doesn't seem too happy with the rest of his new-found family, though he says to his step son that he has accepted them.
The ending can lead to a lot of debatable meaning. A question to be asked is if the demons are real demons from a real hell, or if they are a life form that resembles a demon. Depending on which it is, the murder/suicide of all but one character (unknown) in the film could mean a couple of things. If these are the demons you hear of in the religions of the world, then maybe the murder/suicide isn't as crazy as it would seem. One has to wonder about the afterlife fate of these characters. Could the father go to hell? If the latter, only a creature that resembles a demon, then a kind of primal thinking (not necessarily evil) can be used to evil’s agenda – hence the father’s actions. Both religious and non religious readings of the ending though show the ruthlessness of the father. The father doesn't seem to care if he is killed in the end. He knows that the pain in his ass that is his new step son is going to be killed. He decides to kill his new wife and daughter instead. The leader of the militant group sees it a different way, that this act of transcendence is quite real and sees the father as the genuine, good dad. Such dramatic irony.
The foil for the step husband and his family are Chris' own character and his implied girlfriend. It’s all done out of love. Killing the demons, enacting transcendence, all of it is for love; fear of that which is worse than death.
If there was only one complaint I would have, it would be a lack of enough emphasis on things like POV shots. When the step father is on the ground and told to follow a path, a POV shot from the father's perspective of the pathway would be nice. It’s not as bad as it could be though, since the emphasis is kept on the face of the actor. Chris sees the drama that comes from facial expression to be more fulfilling to the drama than an expressive POV shot. It’s a respectable decision.
I would hope for an extended version or sequel to TRANSCENDENCE. There is a lot of potential here. I liked it. Wait, guess what? There is an extended cut!
In Regards to the Extended Cut
I have been privileged to have viewed the extended cut of TRANSCENDENCE. Its 5 minutes longer, colored, and much more dramatically satisfying edit of the film. Fuller orchestra, more details. Spoilers and the kinds of details that surround the film's universe's history will not be talked of here, but know that it is a more dramatically satisfying piece. Things I liked about the initial black and white cut of the film are not sacrificed. The Sergio Leone-esque ending is kept. Characters are meditated on longer. Keep an eye out for this filmmaker.