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.|
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!|
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!"
|THIS BITCH. THIS BITCH. FUCK YOU.|
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".