Thursday, April 24, 2014


"Transcendence" is a catastrophically stupid movie.  Being a Hollywood production about cyberpunk, which combines two things producers know very little about:  science and computers, "Transcendence" was bound to be incredibly stupid.  Worse, this is a movie whose subject matter is the technological singularity, a cutting edge theory of social evolution that predicts the combination of the human brain and computers.  The natural reaction the screenwriters have to this concept is, "well this is new and revolutionary, and that's scary!!"  The assumption here is that transhumanism is inherently evil, computers are bad, technology is made of Satan, and this is a well-known universal truth, unknown only to those vile scientists deluding themselves about making the world a better place while really breaking the sacred laws of Yevon and summoning Sin to destroy another city in Spira.

What's amazing is that "Transcendence" somehow manages to become more stupid when it tries to be more open with trasnhumanism and less mindlessly Luddite.  Oh don't worry, the movie is still amazingly ignorant of computer technology, essentially treating science as magic that can do anything, but in its own pretentious way, it is trying to make a bigger statement about technology and God.  A statement which makes no sense within its own plot.  If "Transcendence" had embraced its own stupidity and just gone with a generic horror movie, albeit one with idiotic anti-science overtones, it would have been a perfectly serviceable silly movie.  Ultimately though it treats a character as a villain who is not really evil, treats clearly villainous characters as heroes, and tries to find an uplifting conclusion with the end of civilization.  This is a movie that pulled its head out of the sand and then shoved its head firmly up its ass.

The plot of "Transcendence" is a fairly generic SciFi concept of a Ghost in the Machine, only done in an amazingly clueless manner.  Johnny Depp plays Dr. Will Caster, a brilliant computer scientist who has created his own AI.  However, a group of terrorists who have no particular dogma other than a mindless fear of the singularity, target Caster and dozens of other computer labs around the country.  Caster is left slowly dying thanks to an extremely farfetched radiation-tipped bullet, and his loving wife, Evelyn (Rebecca Hall), decides to upload his brain to their supercomputer.  Unfortunately now they have meddled in God's domain, creating a monstrous Super Dr. Caster, who can command the universe from his computer body.  So now the terrorists apparently become the heroes, fighting to stop this supreme AI from... healing the sick and saving the environment(??).  "Transcendence" is a mess, frankly.  It tries to transcend the cliches of Hollywood cyberpunk while sticking firmly to the pre-established tropes, meaning nothing makes very much sense.  A very simple question such as:  "who was the good guy supposed to be?" is entirely impossible to answer.  Oops?

Honestly it is a shame to see Johnny Depp working in such conditions, especially since he is a solid actor with a strong career behind him.  His decade or so of superstardom is nearing its end, and seeing Depp return to a smaller genre role is encouraging.  Dr. Will Caster could be a prototypical Depp role:  the bespectacled handsome nerd with messy hair, as seen in such generally decent small-scale horror films as "Secret Window" and "The Ninth Gate", or the extremely underrated thriller, "The Tourist".  The problem though is first of all, "Transcendence" sucks balls, and second of all, Johnny Depp's performance is terrible here.  One might assume that after years of playing wacky over-the-top characters wearing a silly hat, such as Jack Sparrow or more woefully, Tonto in "The Lone Ranger", Johnny is lost trying to play a normal human being.  This is not the case, the problem is the script.  He could be perfect in this movie - if anything in this movie worked.

Get Well Soon, Johnny.
The looming recurring question of "Transcendence" is:  is the AI really Will Caster, or is it just a sentient computer program that thinks it is Will Caster?  This leads to all kinds of existential philosophical questions - is a computer program that thinks it is human, can simulate human voice and expressions, and even feels affection for other humans beings really a human?  Or does it have to actually be a digital clone of a brain to be a person?  "Transcendence" completely ignores these tough questions of sentience and the broader definitions of life to make a boogieman.  There is this underlying assumption that if Computer Will is only an AI, then he is just a thing that should be turned off.  Otherwise a non-human intelligence is just naturally dangerous.  Do other forms of intelligence beyond our own not have a right to live?  Couldn't we just leave the computer brain alone?  If not come to an understanding, and in fact, grow together using our mutual intelligences to make a better world for all kinds of sentient life?  Fuck no!  If it isn't human, it must be destroyed!

And I guess it is not even worth my time to talk about how little the knowledge of technology and science in this movie actually adds up in reality.  Occasionally the computer nonsense leads to unintentionally hilarious moments, such as when Evelyn is trying to get her Computer Husband to work and accidentally fixes him by rebooting her computer.  Remember kids:  no matter what the problem, be it unresponsive Flash Plugins or a Computer Husband unable to find sentience, always try rebooting your PC.  Will escapes from the terrorists as easily as jumping through an ethernet cable.  But to where?  I have to wonder what the size of the file would be if you were trying to send your entire consciousness over the Internet.  I'm guessing he was too large of a file to fit in an email, did he use Dropbox?  Within minutes later he's basically taken control of the Internet, apparently without any servers or a host.  Exactly how that works, I'm not sure, but he's so powerful he can complete extremely fast trades on the New York stock exchange*, making millions within a day from nothing.  (Where did he even getting his money from?  A dead guy cannot possibly have a bank account.)

At one point Evelyn gets a hotel room under the pseudonym of "Turing".  Get it?  Alan Turing?  The father of computer science?  One of the most brilliant people of the 20th century?  God, hearing his name in "Transcendence" was enough to make me almost cry.  Such disrespect.

What's bizarre though, is the scripting and character interaction.  Director Wally Pfister (usually a cinematographer for Christopher Nolan) manages to keep up the suspense of Computer Will's humanity by keeping all of his conversations short, awkward, and stilted.  Nearly every conversation in this script is badly done, with characters simply fulfilling mechanical roles rather than becoming real people.  Johnny Depp and Rebecca Hall seem to never properly connect.  So I can't really tell:  is Johnny Depp's acting utterly lifeless because Pfister thought this would be creepy, or is it just plain old incompetence?  And which is worse:  incompetence by accident or incompetence by design?  The other actors in this movie such as Paul Bettany, Morgan Freeman, and distressingly, Cillian Murphy**, all have terrible roles as well.  Or maybe everybody in this movie is a robot, and "Transcendence" is a weird Twilight Zone comedy of errors.

The future will have really silly glowing shelves!  Your closet will be gorgeous!
As I watched "Transcendence", every single scene seemed to offer possibilities for character-defining moments, some of which were extremely clever.  They were all ignored to continue on the movie's extremely dull way.  Is Computer Will actually a psychopath, or is he a human trying his hardest to express himself from the limited confines of a computer body?  There is a surprisingly clever early scene where Computer Will has trouble speaking.  Is this his brain accommodating to speaking without a mouth, being unable to filter out his thoughts as dialog?  I sure wish, I don't really know what it was.  There is actually somewhere a brilliant novel to be written about a person awaking as an AI and adjusting to the experience.  None of the brilliance or the possibilities of the idea are here in "Transcendence".  Like, so much of the humane experience and emotions are made from internal biochemistry of the brain, you feel angry because a hormone has been secreted.  Will doesn't have those hormones anymore - what does that do to him?  I don't know, the people who made "Transcendence" did not even consider this.  I've spent a day thinking about the topic and I've already come up with like seven better movies - they had millions of dollars and years.

I did not like "Her", but I have to admit, compared to this simplistic movie, utterly lacking in any curiosity of its own concept, I really do miss Joaquin Phoenix's mopey face.  The AI there was treated as a person, she was warm and loving.  The creepier twists towards the end seemed to be a natural extension of the concept.  That was good SciFi - a rubbish movie - but good SciFi.  Also "Her" answered the question of how a human and a computer are supposed to have sex, "Transcendence" would run out of the room in tears if you even brought that idea up.

The Will character undergoes no character arc of any kind, he never goes mad with power, he never gets jealous of Evelyn as she grows more distant to him, he does not grow or decrease in humanity.  I could see him getting disgusted with his wife's slowness to adjusting to his scientific discoveries by choosing to cut himself off from his human side.  But that doesn't happen either.  He stays this bland saintly figure.  (Which is odd considering Computer Will literally creates cyborg zombies halfway through the movie out of the sick and infirmed who come to him looking for help, and this is not very well explained.***)  In fact, nobody has a character arc in this movie.  The closest thing comes with Paul Bettany's character, who begins supporting Will and Evelyn in their transhuman experiments, but then gets kidnapped by the terrorists, and turns into a Luddite.  He has no particular reason, other than an unfounded fear of what Computer Will might do.

Which seems to be a common thread amongst just about everybody here that isn't Computer Will.  It is the terrorists who really piss me off, by the way.  "Transcendence" is the kind of movie where a US official at one point says "we're going to ally with the terrorists", leading me to imagine a hideous scenario where the CIA and Al Qaeda have come together to defeat SKYNET.  What they really mean is a cabal of White people who have kidnapped Paul Bettany and converted him to their anti-computer mindset.  They have no particular dogma other than an unspecified fear of technology.  "You am play God!"  This is enough for them to go on suicide attacks, shoot at innocent people, and create a computer virus that will destroy the entire Internet and - somehow - all electrical technology, in order to kill the Computer.  The leader of the terrorists, Bree (Kate Mara) is this unbelievable bitch who is willing to go so far as sacrifice her own men in kamikaze attacks, double crosses everybody, willingly sacrifices completely innocent people, and at the end, pulls a gun at Paul Bettany - a man she's called her mentor - in order to bait "Evil" Will into shutting himself down.  "You either die heroically for your friend, you monstrous inhuman AI creature, or I'll murder this innocent man for my own selfish bullshit aims!"

By the end of "Transcendence" the morality of the story is so warped I have no fucking clue what the movie was even trying to say.  There is truly nobody to root for:  a cold computer face that has (more or less) done nothing wrong to anybody, or a gang of goddamn terrorists who do not even bat an eye at the idea of ending civilization?  There is a kind of movie that can thrives off of having a Gray and Gray morality, without having a simple Good and Evil battle, but "Transcendence" is not nearly smart enough to pull that off.  Hell it can barely define what simplistic characters it already has.

And this movie opens with Paul Bettany walking through the rotting ruins of the Castor's house, after all of society has collapsed, millions have died, and innocent people are dead, so the ending is pretty much a foregone conclusion.  The "villain" is trying his hardest just to disarm the people trying to kill him, the "heroes" are content with letting people on life support drop dead because "THE COMPUTER IS SCARY, WWWWWWAAAAAAAAAAHHH!!"  And I don't know what side "Transcendence" is on!  Bree is probably the most thoroughly despicable character of all of 2014 - she survives and is never once called out on her villainy.  All the audience wants by the end of "Transcendence" is to see Bree die and die in a very painful way, there is no way this character is likable.  What, dyed hair and Avril Levine make-up is supposed to make you sympathetic?  Meanwhile, Computer Will and his wife die horribly.  Oops?

Was it all an elaborate and incredibly stupid Jesus parallel?  Did the Computer AI die for mankind's sins?  Was Johnny Depp supposed to be a benevolent man-made God?  Then why did he have cyber-zombies?  What the fuck was this??

You know, even if the final statement of morals had made sense, "Transcendence" would still be a garbage movie.  The heart and soul of this film is supposed to be Will and Evelyn, but their chemistry is entirely lacking.  Humanity is completely absent - and I don't mean that with any irony, this movie is simply soulless.  It is pointlessly mechanical, busily piling up a complicated plot built on an idiotic 1990s idea of AI villains (it is so sad that there are cyberpunk-themed episodes of "The X-Files" that are more clever than a 2014 feature film), and the lack of any character drags the entire film down.  Weirdly for a movie directed by a great cinematographer such as Wally Pfister, the film is miserably shot and its action sequences are turgid and slow.  We end on this big maudlin moment that I think was supposed to be uplifting, right at the moment that society collapses and several characters are killed.  No, I am not fucking uplifted!  That was horrible!  "Transcendence" gets everything wrong:  it gets the science wrong, it gets the characters wrong, it gets the basic logic wrong.  Wrong.  Wrong.  Wrong.

Someday there will be real transhumans.  It is startling to imagine that within a few decades, a movie as stupid as "Transcendence" might be viewed as actively hateful and ignorant.  This could become a 21st century "Birth of a Nation".  Of course, that's assuming anybody remembers this piece of shit within even a week, let alone decades.

* Which would be impossible if he's in California, where this entire movie takes place.  Forget super sentient AI, you still have to deal with basic laws of physics, such as the speed of light moving information from cables across the country.  Wall Street right now has some of the most sophisticated trading algorithms running the market, designed by the most brilliant computer programmers on the planet.  There are literally countless trades occurring faster then your brain could process the information coming off of a computer screen.  And those firms are based within meters of the market, not thousands of miles.  It is actually quite frightening when you realize so much of our economy has become an automated black box, almost impenetrable for anybody to understand - and economics was already using Chaos Theory back when traders had to physically buy shares on Wall Street back in the 1980s.  Computer Will does not stand a chance.  I'd almost believe the nanotechnology nonsense before I would believe his power to simply conquer Wall Street within seconds.

** Poor Cillian Murphy really deserves so much better than what he gets in this movie.  He is essentially playing the same ineffectual cop from "In Time", only this time he's Morgan Freeman's sidekick.  Which is weird because Morgan Freeman in this movie plays a computer scientist, but seems to have unlimited access to the FBI - just after he was the only survivor of a mass-poisoning at his lab.  (I guess nobody thought Freeman could possibly be a suspect?)  Cillian Murphy, I love you, you are a great actor!  Pick better movies than this!

*** I have so many questions:  Are these cyborg people still themselves, or are they just Will's puppets?  Did they willingly join the mental collective, or are they slaves?  Are they happy in their mental states, or are they screaming on the inside?  I bet even the screenwriter has no fucking idea.  Nobody cared when making "Transcendence".


  1. Sigh......

    I was really looking forward to this and while I don't treat every review you do as gospel. This just sounds depressing.

    While I am slightly more on the fence in regards to transhumanism , I am at least open to the possibility. When it starts becoming commercially viable I wont be one of the first in line. Rather I will observe the "transformed" individuals and come to my own conclusions as to what it is. The big thing for me I consider is the nature of the "soul".
    I know the soul is just a concept to a degree, but I always keep it in my mind when I consider transhumanism.
    That said if the soul does exist and when you upload a brain you lose it, I don't think the process should be completely thrown out the window. In this case while its more of a copy, I see it somewhere the lines of identical twins. They may start out the same, but have the choices and opportunities to become their own person. And that's not getting into the argument of how one obtains a soul, are we born with it or though life do we forge our own souls by our actions and our morals. If its the latter a intelligent brainuploaded human consciousness could "create" a soul from its actions.

    Overall there are just to many variables to consider, to completely do away with the concept and say its " Evillll" .
    So it really saddens me that a movie that could have gotten some of those ideas into the public consciousness is no stupid.

    Sword Of Primus

  2. I haven't seen this movie but I think I may have heard one of my favorite lines of dialogue ever from it:

    "We have to unplug the Internet."

  3. I'd say that the movie is actually a critique of anti-technologists and that you were actually spot on on it being a "Jesus parallel." It's satirical in its treatment of the government and of terrorist organizations. I think the main flaw of the movie is its failure to emphasize all of this. For example, Freeman's character at the end of the movie seemed to be in a state of confusion. I think that he was in the best position to express the realization that Will really meant no harm and that Will was actually intent on saving the world, but this did not come out. The regret of having all of the answers to all of life's diseases at one's fingertips and then losing them because of blind prejudice; that could have been better emphasized.

  4. Just finished watching this movie and honestly I have to agree, I'd say, with about 98% of this article. Bree was the clear villain in this movie for me. Sadly it came across as more of a sad story about a genius couple who didnt know how to communicate with each other rather than a transhuman story.