I wanted to like Transcendence, or at least come away from it secure in the knowledge it has been unfairly maligned; that it’s a movie full of compelling ideas somewhat botched in the execution. The wholesale slaughter it has received (much of it focused on Johnny Depp, who is the least of its problems but with a trio of underperformers in as many years it appears that it’s his turn to be roundly dumped on) at the pens of the critics has been merciless and assumed/hoped it must be over-the-top; this was simply the latest bandwagon evisceration, like last year’s really quite enjoyable (also Depp starring) The Lone Ranger. Unfortunately, the brickbats aren’t entirely undeserved. Excessive maybe, since this is just a not very good movie rather than a wholly atrocious one, but Transcendence’s virtues can be counted on the fingers of one hand and leave several digits to spare. Yes, it looks quite nice, and the actors are all competent. But the script stinks, and most damningly for a movie sold on big themes and portentous existential ideas and ethical conundrums, it’s bereft of a brain. Hinging the movie on an admittedly solid plot twist has the side effect of sabotaging any chance to explore the concepts behind it. Transcendence is a dumb movie with the pretensions of a smart, important one, and it’s surely this that explains the savaging.
The picture aches from how seriously it approaches its subject, and as a consequence its failings are exposed all the more unforgivingly. First-timer Jack Paglen’s screenplay is hackneyed, banal or nonsensical in any given scene. Sometimes all three at once. His characters are devoid of plausibility, or even vaguely ascribed motivation. Cardboard is an oft-used description for underwritten roles, but Paglen’s characters can’t even rise to the level of clichéd; they are no more than names and job descriptions. There are scientists, there are terrorists, and there are FBI agents. And that’s about it. Perhaps if Michael Bay had directed Transcendence he would have played to script’s (lack of) strengths; he could have injected some pace, shallow flash and gaudy excess into its empty head. Instead, first-timer Wally Pfister (who must be counting the days until he can return to cinematography; even Jan de Bont saw a couple of successes when he made the transition to director before things went sour) is so convinced this is grand and significance, he can’t see the screenplay has crumbled to dust before him.
Pfister manages to be both long-winded and disorientatingly abrupt in his shifts of location and motivation. Part of that is down to Paglen, but Pfister apparently has no clue how to put together an action scene; the pace is all over the shop, and the staging is borderline laughable. The big climax (this is a $100m movie, remember) has the kind of threadbare compositions and sagging edits one might expect from a straight-to-video or Syfy Channel movie. When Cillian Murphy’s character, released from the grip of a CGI nanotech tendril, composes himself and asks Morgan Freeman if he’s okay, you’d swear this was a rehearsal or outtake, or someone accidentally left the camera running. It’s hopeless.
It isn’t necessarily a problem that the whole Artificial Intelligence idea is much and over-used, such that it now seems a little quaint. The concept of technological singularity, from which Transcendence takes its title, has more than enough juice to follow through with something thought-provoking. When it exceeds the collective intelligence of humanity, the artificial intelligence in turn initiates an evolutionary leap in humanity itself. Alas, Pfister and Paglen conceive of this in only the tritest ways, both narratively and visually. There is a good idea here, but the idea is the twist rather than the exploration of the concepts behind it. It’s very difficult to engage with the fate (or salvation) of humanity if you don’t care about any of its specimens. And since Pfister’s vision of this world appears to be populated by no more than about twenty people, none of whom are interesting, this ends up seeming like a tiny picture in spite of the vast vistas and widescreen photography. Tiny would be all right if it meant intimate, but the human drama never stands a chance.
Paglen presents a confused and incoherent story from the first (his script appeared on The Blacklist, which is a warning of the merits of their selection process). As a one-sentence premise, Transcendence has potential; dying scientist Will Caster (Depp) has his consciousness uploaded to an AI programme he and wife Evelyn (Rebecca Hall) are working on; then shit happens. That’s fine and dandy, but Caster is dying as a result of a brush with a polonium-laced bullet fired by a devotee of an extremist group called Revolutionary Independence From Technology (R.I.F.T.) We aren’t give any reasons to believe such a group could come into being, given that techno-fear isn’t causing people to rise up and start attacking scientists in the real world. If they had some sort of deranged religious underpinning their ethos might at least be semi-plausible. But they exist in a land of fiction where scientifically trained individuals take up the gun purely because the plot demands it.
R.I.F.T. are led by Kate Mara, not a sympathetic actress at the best of times, which lends even less inclination to comprehend why they are doing what they are doing. There seems to be no judgement on the terrorists, even though they go around killing people with impunity. Then the Casters’ pal Max (Paul Bettany) is captured by R.I.F.T. and, through the least convincing case of Stockholm Syndrome ever, transforms into a devotee of their cause. And then the FBI get behind them too. If, as the ending appears to suggest, the twist is that they are all wrong (no one stopped Will from destroying humanity, as he was out to transform it for the better like a kind of quantum Jesus), you might argue the lack of explicit judgement on R.I.F.T. is intentional; the apparent endorsement is a “Fooled you” designed to misdirect suspicion on Will. Except they never seem remotely sympathetic since their cause isn’t remotely believable. Max getting on board seems almost random; he’s been knocking about for so long, why not? After all, he was always fairly skeptical so it’s entirely believable he’d march onto the Caster complex and start shooting people.
Transference could only have been improved by the removal of the R.I.F.T. plotline. The makers would have lost a great chunk of difficult-to-swallow antagonism, and had the opportunity to make more of the powers-that-be. Presumably Paglen thought paying lip service to agency interests in the form of Murphy’s FBI man would be sufficient to cover all bases. Unfortunately, the reticence to be involved, and even lack of awareness of Caster’s state of play during the opening sections, just doesn’t make any sense. They only show up in the desert when they are invited? It’s one of a number of gaping great holes in the plot. the Not only would they be surveilling left, right and centre, they would be appropriating any potentially dangerous or strategically useful tech. In general, the monitoring angle of the script, in terms of all parties, is a matter of pure convenience. R.I.F.T. seem remarkably proficient with their watchful eyes, certainly more than anyone else.
This lack of scrutiny is the case across the board. Evelyn is only as smart as any given scene allows. Being blinded by love and grief is one thing. A scientist who doesn’t know what polonium is, quite another. She only gets worried by what avatar hubby is up to when Morgan Freeman (in maximum pay cheque-cashing mode; his most interesting moment comes with a shot of uneaten chocolate cake at the beginning, and the realisation he doesn’t occupy a villainous role takes even that away) hands her a helpful note. And how does she know the race is on to upload hubby the Internet before it’s too late, or that it’s R.I.F.T. who are coming to the front door? Last we saw, she’d thrown Max out. Perhaps great chunks of plot deserted themselves, or more likely they were never there in the first place.
The notion of a righteous, scientific Armageddon at Will’s behest is the one good concept in Transcendence. But it’s squandered. The reveal that it was Will all along doesn’t make a whole lot of sense, because his behaviour throughout has to be dubious to encourage the idea that he might not be Will but a nefarious computer mind appropriating his speech and face. The movie spends so much time attempting to deflect us in favour of the twist that it forgets lend any back and forth to the core concept.
This is true of the philosophical themes generally. We’ve seen numerous discussions of machine sentience, or depictions in various forms, from 2001 to Dark Star to Demon Seed (there’s none of Proteus’ threatening megalomania from Will) to Star Trek: The Motion Picture. Presumably, again, the reason Transcendence never runs with the baton (if we discount ineptitude, which we can’t to be fair) is that this isn’t AI; it’s actually Will’s consciousness up there, so the lip service to the discussion in a couple of scenes becomes irrelevant. So too do any existential musings on whether there’s any soul involved in the transference of mind to a digital format. At pretty much every turn, Pfister avoids taking the thought-provoking route. He seems keen on a Malick-esque wonderment in terms of visual style (which would suggest Johnny’s soul does live on in the Internet), and the script is keen on a “love conquers all” sign-off (so dismissing a reductive or rationalist approach).
While it’s a nice sentiment, that all along Will has been trying to heal the world for his beloved, there’s no emotional heft to the Casters’ relationship. Hall gives it her all, but it’s too much for too little character and too little support from Depp. About the only really compelling scene is the one where Evelyn screams at Max to leave after he voices his objections to uploading Johnny, and there’s a nagging feeling throughout that this is based on plot expediency rather than a grieving woman acting in a state of confusion.
The problem posed by the transformation of humans brought on by Johnny’s transcendence is that it effectively takes away free will, even if it allegedly fosters some degree of autonomy. It takes away individual mental space and replaces it with a collective, hive mind. There’s no attempt to engage with what the changes mean to Will’s army of augmented humans; whether they are happy to exchange autonomy for Will to live through them. They have no appreciable voice, aside from Martin (Clifton Collins Jr) who is rather remote and insubstantial; perhaps he hoped Evelyn would change her mind and reciprocate when Will uses him as a potential fuck puppet (a scene that, along with many others, is designed to make you think computer Jonny is a nutter). It’s true that Martin asks to be reconnected when he is unplugged, but just because you’re like the high of drugs doesn’t mean they’re good for you. The point is, the movie does nothing with the idea; it’s an interesting twist to have the perceived violation of free will welcomed, since it goes against the central tenet of pretty much every sci-fi movie (it is our individuality and separateness that makes us human), but it goes untended.
The nanotech subplot (aren’t we all sick to the back teeth of nano tropes in science fiction by this point?) is a cumbersome magic wand device that further disengages. Okay, the singularity idea brokers leaps in understanding that would allow science to suddenly look like magic. That doesn’t mean it has to be visualised in such a dull, pixel-heaven form. And this self-replicating technology seems curiously fixated on the Internet for survival. Shouldn’t it be able to exceed such limitations by its nature? Well no, because uploading a virus as plot solution has become a Hollywood failsafe. Additionally, as others have pointed out, shouldn’t that be only Will’s surviving nano droplets under his garden copper mesh? Evelyn didn’t get a chance to be uploaded, so maybe love doesn’t conquer all after all. Incontinent plotting does, though. The visualisation of the hybrids is quite ropey too; and isn’t it lucky that, as soon as Martin has been upgraded and is wandering about lifting heavy machinery without breaking a sweat, his image is captured and put on the web (and couldn’t super Johnny just have blocked it?) Of course, this a movie where the monitors displaying Will feature a repeating glitch despite the perfection in every other aspect. Just, because, you know, it looks cool.
There are a couple of nice moments and sequences. I liked the idea of Evelyn descending on a semi-ghost town I the middle of the desert and transforming it. But mostly this is derivative or moribund or both. If there’s no clear call on whether technological advance is a good or bad thing, this isn’t a result of carefully considered ambivalence. It’s because the makers aren’t posing their questions with any insight. There’s a bookend of a world without the Internet and the rumination that it feels so much smaller; Pfister lends this a nostalgic quality, but it’s no more thought through than Paglen’s crazy R.I.F.T.ers.
Nobody is doing their best work here. By underplaying, Depp at least avoids drawing attention to himself (some have charge that this is a poor performance; really, it’s just a rather indistinct one). His polonium-chic look is the closest he’s come with his latter-day forays into the make-up chair to Edward Scissor Johnny. Hall wastes her energy. Bettany struggles for dear life against a script that makes him look or sound like a moron in almost every scene. Transcendence possesses a particularly under-nourished B-movie script that diminished rather than elevated by its production values, cast and uncertain debutant director. It takes familiar science fiction devices, debates over consciousness, the concept of the soul and computer sentience but is unable to sustain them with form and substance. The result opts out of any real drama and conflict and leaves a whole lot of room for dead space, ineffectuality and unintentional silliness. This isn’t the worst film of the year so far, but it’s the most disappointing.