What went wrong with Transcendence? This movie was supposed to be the new science-fiction hotness. An original storyline about artificial intelligence and brain-uploading, the directorial debut of Chris Nolan's cinematographer Wally Pfister, a great cast... and yet, it's getting widely panned. Why did the A.I. revolution fail?
It's really sad, because you have to respect Transcendence's ambition, and the timeliness of the ideas that it's tackling. This movie really wants to be a smart saga that addresses the conundrums of the Google Glass era, but instead it serves up super-geniuses who act so idiotic you want to throw things at the screen. And it dumbs down its ideas to the point where they barely make sense any more. Most of all, it fails at the basic storytelling task of connecting the dots and drawing you in.
Not that Transcendence is a terrible film — it's just not great, and it's not goofy enough to be just fun. In a lot of ways, Transcendence is this year's Elysium — it looks pretty, it has a somewhat original science-fiction storyline that really wants to say something profound or topical, and you could see how this could have been awesome. But it just fails at story. At least Elysium had fun action, plus a scenery-chomping Sharlto Copley and Matt Damon arguing with robots.
Very minor spoilers below — if you've seen the trailers, you'll be fine.
Sign my Wired
So in Transcendence, Johnny Depp is Dr. Will Caster, the smartest A.I. expert in the world. Hot ladies are always coming up to him asking him to sign the cover of Wired Magazine with his picture on it. But he only has eyes for his wife, Evelyn (Rebecca Hall), who's also sort of genius-ish. Then Will Caster is shot by anti-A.I. fanatics (who sadly are not called the American Anti-Artificial Intelligence Insurgency of Engineering Experts, or A.A.A.I.I.E.E. for short) and he's dying.
There's no way to save Will from death — except by uploading his brain to a supercomputer, and letting him live on as an artificial consciousness. So Evelyn and their friend Max (Paul Bettany) start implanting probes into Will's brain and asking him to recite the dictionary. Soon enough, Will is dead — but then he's a face on a computer screen, talking and emoting and generally getting his Zoe Graystone on. But after spending days and days siphoning his friend's brain into the computer, Max only needs a few moments before he starts asking whether this virtual floating head is really Will. And even if it's Will... what is he turning into? Is he... evil?
And that's more or less the setup. You could imagine a really fantastic movie around just the question of whether the copy of Will's consciousness in the machine is really Will or a facsimile. In fact, there are all sorts of fantastic questions about identity and personhood raised here and there, that the movie never quite sinks its teeth into.
There are several moments in Transcendence where people make sudden and drastic decisions, mostly based on the fact that the movie needs them to. Almost everybody in this movie is supposed to be a mega-genius except for Cillian Murphy, and all the characters stand around spouting the occasional bit of jargon in a way that's meant to sound weighty and clever, but actually just sounds like they're reading off press releases from second-tier think tanks. This movie's need to be taken seriously only drains a lot of the enjoyment out of it.
Rise or Fall
While I was watching Transcendence, I kept comparing it in my head to Rise of the Planet of the Apes — they're both films about mad science, and people playing God and facing terrible consequences as a result. One is about uploading brains, the other about uplifting apes. The other difference is, Rise of the Planet of the Apes absolutely works as a film, because grabs you emotionally with the story of John Lithgow's dementia, and Caesar's bond with him. Rise is actually heartbreaking in places.
Meanwhile, Transcendence stands or falls based on one thing: the relationship between Will Caster and his wife Evelyn. If you believe in their love, if you're invested in their marriage, then you'll absolutely be along for the ride as she goes to crazy lengths to save the man she loves. If you don't, then this film is meaningless.
And sadly, the latter is true. The movie makes a few token efforts to convince you that Depp and Hall are in love, but they're terribly rushed and short-handy. There's one brief scene of Depp building a Faraday cage with sunflowers in it, so they can canoodle without getting bothered by Facebook updates.
But the movie's not interested in Will and Evelyn's relationship, or in them as characters — if anything, Transcendence gets more juice out of Bettany's Max, and his conflicted friendship with both of them. Depp is doing the same growly-mumbly acting he's done in his last few movies, and Hall does the best she can with back-of-an-envelope character development.
Director Pfister is a great cinematographer, who deserves a ton of credit for making Christopher Nolan's films beautiful. And this film has a few great images, here and there, which almost substitute for the emotional depth the characters refuse to give us. There's one shot of a flower, when Will Caster is dying, and at first you think the flower is a brain scan or some other kind of medical imaging display because of the eerie blue glow around it. That's a really powerful image. A closeup of chocolate cake is so grainy, it becomes sinister.
But all too often, Pfister settles for giving us slow-motion close-ups of water drops and big landscape shots of solar-power fields, which look like stuff we've seen a million times before, and distract from the story he's trying to tell.
That's the real tragedy of Transcendence: the whole thing hangs on a personal story of death and grief, but the movie doesn't even try to conjure emotion. Instead, it throws cool images and weighty (but weightless) ideas at you, as if those are the story.
Roland Emmerich might have done it better
In another reality, we would be getting Roland Emmerich's movie The Singularity right about now. And here's a scary thought: Emmerich's version might have been a better movie. Emmerich's Singularity appears to be dead, but it sounded as though it would explore a lot of the same territory as Transcendence. Except that Ray Kurzweil, author of The Singularity is Near, was helping with the script.
Emmerich's version probably would have been more pro-A.I., but it also might have had a slightly more interesting storyline. Yes, it's weird to say the director of 2012 could have made a better piece of science fiction, but it's also kind of true. Plus Emmerich's film probably would have had way better disaster porn.
We very much need more pop culture that engages with our relationship with technology and helps people to process the fear that too much dependence on computers and devices will siphon off our humanity. The other day I got a text message from my mom, who doesn't actually text, saying "Can't talk right now... what's up?" At first I thought my mom had started texting after all — but no, it was some auto-response thing her phone had sent in response to a button she'd pushed. Our devices speak for us and even seem to impersonate us, and this is only going to get more jarring as they get more sophisticated.
So it's especially disappointing when a film like Transcendence bites off more than it can chew. In some ways, Transcendence shows the downside of the Chris Nolan style of slick film-making — but Nolan usually knows enough to let his characters breathe a tiny bit, and also grabs onto one or two ideas in the middle of his plot sprawl, like a dog with a chew toy.
Some movies are best viewed in theaters, with a giant soda and all your friends. Some movies are best rented. Some are worth seeing for free on basic cable. Transcendence is probably best watched on a tiny airplane seat screen, in the middle of a long flight, when you can't sleep but you don't want to concentrate on anything but pictures of rainwater and Johnny Depp's soothing growl. Under those circumstances, Transcendence will probably be just about perfect.