Monday, April 21, 2014

Review: Transcendence

Or: Pardon Me, There's an Asshole in My Computer.

Transcendence, the directorial debut of Christopher Nolan's go-to cinematographer Wally Pfister, is this year's Prometheus -- a pretty bad movie slickly posing as a very good one. It looks great (no surprise), has a top-notch cast and supposedly contains a lot of big ideas. Unfortunately, those big ideas aren't thought through or explored, the cast is wasted with nothing to do and the handsome photography is in the service of a bad story. The movie is a shiny, well-polished mess.

Johnny Depp stars as Dr. Will Caster, who, despite basically being a drip, is a rock star scientist who adorns the covers of magazines and has groupies falling at his feet (I guess the fact that he looks like Johnny Depp doesn't hurt in this regard). Along with his wife Evelyn (Rebecca Hall) and best friend Max (Paul Bettany), Will is building an artificial intelligence that will be self aware and rival the combined minds of everyone on the planet. When an anti-technology terrorist group (RIFT) shoots Will with a radioactive bullet (!), he's given a death sentence; that's when Evelyn decides that she can keep her husband alive by uploading his consciousness into the A.I. The plan works -- too well, in fact -- and before long the Depp computer (Depputer!) is growing all-powerful, accessing any information it wants, healing the sick and eventually creating an entire race of hive-minded super soldiers. Too far, Depputer. Too far.
Here are just some of the things Transcendence is unable to transcend:

1. A bad script. The screenplay by Jack Paglan (which formerly resided on The Black List, supposedly the best unproduced scripts in Hollywood) is mostly terrible. Characters who are established as being geniuses behave very stupidly. The screenplay wants to sound very tech savvy, but boils down concepts and terminology to such a pedestrian degree that it becomes insulting to thinking adults. The tech terrorists -- yes, that's a thing in this movie -- are called RIFT, which stands for Revolutionary Independence from Technology. The movie is full of stupid shit like that. It's rarely about the same thing from one scene to the next; the script spends most of its time suggesting that the Depputer is one thing, only to say it's something else when it's convenient. While it attempts to say some things about the reach and power of technology, it never gets past the most surface level observations. Nearly all of the problems with Transcendence can be traced back to the script.

2. Johnny Depp: I can't figure out why Johnny Depp signed on to this movie. He doesn't get to wear makeup. He doesn't get to bury himself in accents and quirk. He's playing a normal person -- beyond normal, in fact, as Dr. Will Caster is one of the most boring people on the planet even before he becomes the ghost in the machine. Depp has become such an affected performer that even his regular scientist character speaks with a sort-of accent -- it's the same one Johnny Depp the Person adopts in interviews and, one can assume, in everyday life. It's hard to overlook. Once you do, there's still no character there. Will Caster can be described only by his station in life: scientist, computer program.
3. Everyone else: Pfister has assembled a great cast. Besides Depp, Hall and Bettany, there's Morgan Freeman, Cillian Murphy, Kate Mara, Clifton Collins Jr. and Cole Hauser. Unfortunately, no one is given anything to do. Rebecca Hall tries to find her character's inner life, but ends up creating someone who is a brilliant scientist and wants to change the world but does a bunch of stupid, reckless things because she loves a man. That might be ok -- it wouldn't be the first film to make the case that love can make us behave foolishly -- but there's no attempt made to reconcile that fact. Morgan Freeman is completely wasted in a part that could have been played by literally anyone else, except that maybe anyone else isn't on loan from Christopher Nolan's company. Paul Bettany comes closest to creating an interesting person, but his entire arc takes place off screen courtesy of a "Two Years Later" title card. It doesn't help that everything we're supposed to infer about his character is flat out spoken as text by Kate Mara, who has the worst part to play and meets the challenge thusly.

4. It's an unremarkable debut: This is Wally Pfister's first movie as director, and while he does a completely serviceable job behind the camera (in a different capacity this time), Transcendence tells us nothing about him as a filmmaker except that he's heavily influenced by Christopher Nolan -- he borrows several members of Nolan's company and even demonstrates a desire to imitate Nolan's endings. He does what he can with the material, but he also whiffs on a couple of major things. When the movie reaches the apex of its craziness and we're to believe that the whole fate of the world is at stake, Pfister takes a page from the Thor playbook and has the planet's future played out in a few blocks of a remote desert town. Two of the biggest emotional beats in the movie -- one a goodbye and one a reunion -- happen off camera. Even the structure of the movie is a problem; it opens with a flash forward to a world without technology and Paul Bettany visiting the grave of two characters. In the first five minutes, we know how the movie will end and who will survive, leaving two hours to play out the inevitable. This might have been how it was written in the script, but Pfister should have stepped back and realized that structure sabotaged what little drama his movie might have had.

5. It was just done better in Her, a movie that also dealt with technology that becomes self aware and attempts to replace humankind. But whereas Her tells a small, beautiful story that ultimately boils down to our need for human connection, Transcendence exists to make us afraid of becoming slaves to technology. The indie movie is quietly about love. The bloated, bombastic Hollywood version wants to sell us a doomsday scenario.
Transcendence is not a terrible movie. In fact, it's a good deal better than I anticipated it would be based on the film's lousy marketing. Every so often, it will introduce the thread of an idea and make one hopeful that it will follow that path, whether it's the movie briefly becoming becoming a modern-day Frankenstein or a kind of cyberpunk Invasion of the Body Snatchers. It's only ever able to pay those ideas the faintest of lip service, though, before it goes back to being a lumbering imitation of a blockbuster.

Because the movie has been hammered so hard by critics and movie bloggers are already cheering at its box office failure, I find myself taking more of a defensive position than I might otherwise, arguing that it's not that bad instead of piling on and laughing at its corpse. That's not fair, though. The movie is the movie, and Transcendence is a movie about which hours could be spent talking about where it goes wrong and only a few minutes on what it does right. No amount of talent in front of or behind the camera can cover up so many deep tissue flaws. Lord knows Transcendence tries.


  1. I remember one of the trailers for this movie said "From the creative mind of Christopher Nolan" leading me and my family to think he was the director. We found out otherwise a few hours later, but I'm still annoyed with that trailer.

    Her was such an awesome movie.

  2. Congratulations on not making a "pfisting" joke, Patrick - I salute your commitment to high-brow film criticism!

    I knew I didn't like the looks of this sucker (other than liking its looks) but was hoping my instincts were wrong - guess not!

  3. We have pretty much the exact same feelings about Transcendence, Patrick. I couldn't for the life of me figure out why Morgan Freeman was even in the movie at all. I felt like so much of the movie wanted you to feel for the Castor's tragic love story, but I feel the only way the movie tells you that they're in love is simply by saying that they're married. Their relationship was so boring, in fact, that it felt like Will's semi-hostile takeover of the world as we know it was the first fight they'd ever had. I summed up my feelings about it exactly the same as you: just go see Her; everything in Transcendence is cranked up to 11 in Her.

  4. Sounds like we're all better off watching "The Colossus of New York" from 1958. That movie was at least trying....

    1. When they started playing the trailers for it, I thought, "Wow, I'd definitely rather watch Lawnmower Man again than this."

  5. Is Cole Hauser wearing a Stephan Lang mask?

  6. The tag line for this review deserves an award. And I'd rather see Pardon Me, There's An Asshole In My Computer than Transcendence.

  7. I know this isn't F This TV Series!, Patrick, but did you ever see Joss Whedon's Dollhouse? It also deals in technology taking over minds, turning normals into badass fighters, and big changes for world society, but with (I gather from this review) far more pizzazz, wit and intelligence.

    1. I watched the first season of Dollhouse. Once it got past the Eliza-Dushku-personality-of-the-week growing pains (the first few episodes are bad), I really liked it. I own Season 2 but still haven't watched it, probably because it's been long enough since I watched the first season that I know I will have to watch it again before I can continue.

  8. I just got out from it, and I have to say Transcendence is one of the worst movies I've seen in a long time (at least one with a budget). I found it to be quite boring, and stopped caring what was happening about 30 minutes in.

    The pacing of the movie is just awful, where I couldn't tell if things were happening in hours, days, or years. Thankfully we get the "two years later" card. but before that I could only guess as to how much time had passed based on Paul Bettany's facial hair. I agree that Max was the only interesting character, but they never explain why he switches sides, after he was so persistent in helping out Depp and Hall.

    At one point they tell us that a character dies, and it took me a few minutes to recollect who that character was. Maybe that's my fault, but there was just nothing interesting about the movie. The performances were bland, there were no action scenes, and the character motivations were lackluster and underdeveloped. Then of course like Patrick states they do nothing with the actors, even though we know they're capable of so much more.

    I know why Depp signed on for the movie though, he probably banked 20 million by doing most of his work via satellite (take that Dwayne Johnson). He also wanted to take on a mainstream role now that his popularity is diminishing. I can't say I blame him, but another bomb won't do him any favors.

    I think there is a good idea somewhere in the movie I suppose. it could have worked better as horror movie, or even more of a sci-fi thriller than it tried to be. I honestly couldn't tell you what genre this movie belongs in, as it's just as much of a drama or even a romance than it is science fiction.

    I really should have waited that extra 20 minutes for Oculus to start rather than seeing this boring mess.