Monday, April 21, 2014
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.
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.
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.
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.