TRANSCENDENCE Review: No Flash, No Drive
1. Tim Burton. Depp and the quirky director first collaborated on 1990’s Edward Scissorhands. Since that auspicious pairing debut, they have made seven other films together of varying quality and success: 1994’s Ed Wood; 1999’s Sleepy Hollow; 2005’s Corpse Bride and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory; 2007’s Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street; 2010’s Alice in Wonderland; and 2012’s Dark Shadows. It seems there is no genre the duo can’t handle, and theirs is a professional relationship worthy of mention in Hollywood’s history books.
2. Pirates of the Caribbean. It’s hard to argue the success of this franchise. Its four installments make it the 11th all-time highest grossing film franchise (adjusted for inflation, according to Box Office Mojo), and 3rd all-time for franchises with 4 or fewer entries. And if that isn’t enough juice for you, consider that the films are based on the classic Disney theme park ride, and that Disney altered the ride to include Depp and other elements from the films.
3. Otherwise bad movies. It’s his curse. If you remove the titles above (and even some of them are bad), his resumé is more miss than hit, with such clunkers as 1999’s The Astronaut’s Wife, 2005’s The Libertine, 2010’s The Tourist, and 2013’s The Lone Ranger.
That last title was also Depp’s last major release prior to this year’s Transcendence. Surely with this high-concept sci-fi thriller, Depp is hoping to shake off the stink of 2013’s biggest summer flop. Sadly, he needs to keep shaking.
Depp plays Will Caster, a leading authority on Artificial Intelligence. He’s a reclusive, humble man who is more at home with his research and work than he is speaking to the public, but he has a commitment that he has made to his wife Evelyn (Rebecca Hall) and his colleague Max (Paul Bettany). While speaking to an audience about his latest efforts – a computer that is fully self-aware, processing every piece of information available in the global ether and being “taught” emotions – a group of anti-technology domestic terrorists launches a coordinated attack on numerous computer labs. Their fear is that computers will, essentially, take over the world. Their mission is to prevent that from happening.
Part of their plan is to take out Will, and although the shooter’s bullet only grazes the genius, it is laced with a toxin that will kill him in weeks. Desperate to save her husband, Evelyn suggests replicating an experiment they once performed on a monkey: transfer Will’s existence to a super computer. With a reluctant Max’s help, it works. But the FBI isn’t having it, and with help from another of Will’s colleagues – programmer Joseph Tagger (Morgan Freeman) – and resistance leader Bree (Kate Mara), the government does everything it can to stop Will from taking over the world’s computer network, and with that, the world.
It is dumbfounding how bad Transcendence is, and while it’s tempting to say it’s bad “in spite of the fact it is directed by producer Christopher Nolan‘s go-to cinematographer, Wally Pfister,” there is no evidence to support Pfister is capable of helming his own picture. Sure, he has four cinematography Oscar nominations (with one win for 2010’s Inception), but this is his first directorial effort. Also behind the camera, the film is written by Jack Paglan, a writer who, prior to this film, had the exact same number of screenwriting credits that most people have: none. These rookies make rookie mistakes. A lot of them.
The biggest mistake they make is that they expect us to simply go all-in with them because of the loftiness of the concept (and perhaps because of the pedigree of some of names on the poster, particularly Depp, Freeman, and Nolan). But by doing that, they abandon every other rule of storytelling. The first rule they break? There’s really no story here.
Once Will is shot and uploaded into the computer, what follows is the cinematic equivalent of a walk on a treadmill: things happen but the story doesn’t go anywhere. Cyber-Will’s headquarters are built (more on that later). Max doesn’t know where Will and Evelyn are, so he frets. Bree is just as ill-informed. She and her people fret. The FBI? Ditto knowledge and fretting.
TWO YEARS PASS. (So help me.)
Bree and company kidnap Max and they fret together. The FBI decides teaming with domestic terrorists is the best move, so they fret with Bree and Max. Even Evelyn frets because of how powerful Will has become and the things he’s done to LOCALS WHO HAVE VOLUNTEERED TO BE MEDICAL TEST SUBJECTS WITHOUT ANY DURESS FROM WILL TO DO SO. Meanwhile, and this is the worst part about this worst part, Will has done nothing evil or threatening. In fact, he’s remained off the grid, which is puzzling since he is, technically, the grid. Other than some financial malfeasance (which is not a victimless crime I admit), all he’s done is make enormous technological advancements that include unheard-of breakthroughs in medicine, all to make the world a better place (so he says) … but he never actually implements anything outside of the small desert town he now calls home.
All of this treadmill walking creates a dull situation where there is no real conflict. Oh, there is what appears to be conflict in the third act, but it’s really more of an exchange of violent-like acts than actual conflict. (Kids playing cops and robbers with finger guns are like the Hatfields and McCoys compared to the conflict in this film.) And just in case you can’t tell the difference between the good guys and bad guys, fear not. It doesn’t matter. The filmmakers go to extraordinary lengths to make these characters as two-dimensional as possible. You know how I know Bree is a domestic terrorist? She is made up like Avril Lavigne, all punky and stuff, so she must be some radical. And FBI Agent Buchanan (Cillian Murphy) is definitely a Fed because he’s so wooden and cheerless. They even manage to suck the life out of Morgan Freeman, who is as bland as I’ve seen him since – well, since ever.
In addition to that, the filmmakers betray the primary trust between science fiction creators and science fiction consumers: we will believe what is otherwise implausible so long as you are honest with the fundamentals. The example I always use for this is that I’m willing to suspend my disbelief that a man can fly, but if the cop shooting at that flying man fires seven shots from his six-shot revolver, I call shenanigans. This film is filled with a lot of these shenanigans, even though I held up my end of the bargain by believing a man’s soul could be uploaded to a computer. Some might think this is nit-picking, but with no narrative to follow, details become more and more prominent, making errors in those details more and more glaring.
During the big, dramatic, violent-like third act showdown between the goodish guys and the baddish guys, I laughed out loud more than once, and I don’t think I was supposed to.
After my screening, I pondered on Facebook if this film is “Showgirls bad” or “SyFy Channel (with a bigger FX budget) bad.” I have to go with the former because SyFy Channel productions, at least those of late (I’m talking about you, Sharknado), strive for so-bad-they’re-fun status. Showgirls, however, takes itself seriously and has since become what it has become. That’s what Transcendence is, and only time will tell if it becomes the Showgirls of its time and genre. Until then, it is nothing more than a throwback to a simpler technological time: 1980s direct-to-VHS schlock.