Skip to main content

So you're trying to create a god? Your own god?

Transcendence
(2014)

(SPOILERS) I wanted to like Transcendence, or at least come away from it secure in the knowledge it has been unfairly maligned; that it’s a movie full of compelling ideas somewhat botched in the execution.  The wholesale slaughter it has received (much of it focused on Johnny Depp, who is the least of its problems but with a trio of underperformers in as many years it appears that it’s his turn to be roundly dumped on) at the pens of the critics has been merciless and assumed/hoped it must be over-the-top; this was simply the latest bandwagon evisceration, like last year’s really quite enjoyable (also Depp starring) The Lone Ranger. Unfortunately the brickbats aren’t entirely undeserved. Excessive maybe, since this is just a not very good movie rather than a wholly atrocious one, but Transcendence’s virtues can be counted on the fingers of one hand and leave several digits to spare. Yes, it looks quite nice, and the actors are all competent. But the script stinks, and most damningly for a movie sold on big themes and portentous existential ideas and ethical conundrums, it’s bereft of a brain. Hinging the movie on an admittedly solid plot twist has the side effect of sabotaging any chance to explore the concepts behind it.  Transcendence is a dumb movie with the pretensions of a smart, important one, and it’s surely this that explains the savaging.


The picture aches from how seriously it approaches its subject, and as a consequence its failings are exposed all the more unforgivingly. First-timer Jack Paglen’s screenplay is hackneyed, banal or nonsensical in any given scene. Sometimes all three at once. His characters are devoid of plausibility, or even vaguely ascribed motivation. Cardboard is an oft-used description for underwritten roles, but Paglen’s characters can’t even rise to the level of clichéd; they are no more than names and job descriptions. There are scientists, there are terrorists, and there are FBI agents. And that’s about it. Perhaps if Michael Bay had directed Transcendence he would have played to script’s (lack of) strengths; he could have injected some pace, shallow flash and gaudy excess into its empty head. Instead, first-timer Wally Pfister (who must be counting the days until he can return to cinematography; even Jan de Bont saw a couple of successes when he made the transition to director before things went sour) is so convinced this is grand and significance, he can’t see the screenplay has crumbled to dust before him.


Pfister manages to be both long-winded and disorientatingly abrupt in his shifts of location and motivation. Part of that is down to Paglen, but Pfister apparently has no clue how to put together an action scene; the pace is all over the shop, and the staging is borderline laughable. The big climax (this is a $100m movie, remember) has the kind of threadbare compositions and sagging edits one might expect from a straight-to-video or Syfy Channel movie. When Cillian Murphy’s character, released from the grip of a CGI nanotech tendril, composes himself and asks Morgan Freeman if he’s okay, you’d swear this was a rehearsal or outtake, or someone accidentally left the camera running. It’s hopeless.


It isn’t necessarily a problem that the whole Artificial Intelligence idea is much and over-used, such that it now seems a little quaint. The concept of technological singularity, from which Transcendence takes its title, has more than enough juice to follow through with something thought-provoking. When it exceeds the collective intelligence of humanity, the artificial intelligence in turn initiates an evolutionary leap in humanity itself. Unfortunately Pfister and Paglen conceive of this in only the most trite ways, both narratively and visually. There is a good idea here, but the idea is the twist rather than the exploration of the concepts behind it. It’s very difficult to engage with the fate (or salvation) of humanity if you don’t care about any of its specimens. And since Pfister’s vision of this world appears to be populated by no more than about 20 people, none of whom are interesting, this ends up seeming like a tiny picture in spite of the vast vistas and widescreen photography. Tiny would be all right if it meant intimate, but the human drama never stands a chance.


Paglen presents a confused and incoherent story from the first (his script appeared on The Blacklist, which is a warning of the merits of their selection process). As a one-sentence premise Transcendencehas potential; dying scientist Will Caster (Depp) has his consciousness uploaded to an AI programme he and wife Evelyn (Rebecca Hall) are working on; then shit happens. That’s fine and dandy, but Caster is dying as a result of a brush with a polonium-laced bullet fired by a devotee of an extremist group called Revolutionary Independence From Technology (R.I.F.T.) We aren’t give any reasons to believe such a group could come into being, given that techno-fear isn’t causing people to rise up and start attacking scientists in the real world. If they had some sort of deranged religious underpinning their ethos might at least be semi-plausible. But they exist in a land of fiction where scientifically trained individuals take up the gun purely because the plot demands it.


R.I.F.T. are led by Kate Mara, not a sympathetic actress at the best of times, which lends even less inclination to comprehend why they are doing what they are doing. There seems to be no judgement on the terrorists, even though they go around killing people with impunity. Then the Casters’ pal Max (Paul Bettany) is captured by R.I.F.T. and, through the least convincing case of Stockholm Syndrome ever, transforms into a devotee of their cause. And then the FBI get behind them too. If, as the ending appears to suggest, the twist is that they are all wrong (no one stopped Will from destroying humanity, as he was out to transform it for the better like a kind of quantum Jesus), you might argue the lack of explicit judgement on R.I.F.T. is intentional; the apparent endorsement is a “Fooled you” designed to misdirect suspicion on Will. Except they never seem remotely sympathetic since their cause isn’t remotely believable. Max getting on board seems almost random; he’s been knocking about for so long, why not? After all, he was always fairly skeptical so it’s entirely believable he’d march onto the Caster complex and start shooting people.


Transference could only have been improved by the removal of the R.I.F.T. plotline. The makers would have lost a great chunk of difficult-to-swallow antagonism, and had the opportunity to make more of the powers-that-be. Presumably Paglen thought paying lip service to agency interests in the form of Murphy’s FBI man would be sufficient to cover all bases. Unfortunately the reticence to be involved, and even lack of awareness of Caster’s state of play during the opening sections, just doesn’t make any sense. They only show up in the desert when they are invited? It’s one of a number of gaping great holes in the plot. the Not only would they be surveilling left, right and centre, they would be appropriating any potentially dangerous or strategically useful tech. In general, the monitoring angle of the script, in terms of all parties, is a matter of pure convenience. R.I.F.T. seem remarkably proficient with their watchful eyes, certainly more than anyone else.


This lack of scrutiny is the case across the board. Evelyn is only as smart as any given scene allows. Being blinded by love and grief is one thing. A scientist who doesn’t know what polonium is, quite another. She only gets worried by what avatar hubby is up to when Morgan Freeman (in maximum pay cheque-cashing mode; his most interesting moment comes with a shot of uneaten chocolate cake at the beginning, and the realisation he doesn’t occupy a villainous role takes even that away) hands her a helpful note. And how does she know the race is on to upload hubby the Internet before its too late, or that it’s R.I.F.T. who are coming to the front door? Last we saw, she’d thrown Max out. Perhaps great chunks of plot deserted themselves, or more likely they were never there in the first place.


The notion of a righteous, scientific Armageddon at Will’s behest is the one good concept in Transcendence. But it’s squandered. The reveal that it was Will all along doesn’t make a whole lot of sense, because his behaviour throughout has to be dubious to encourage the idea that he might not be Will but a nefarious computer mind appropriating his speech and face. The movie spends so much time attempting to deflect us in favour of the twist that it forgets lend any back and forth to the core concept.


This is true of the philosophical themes generally. We’ve seen numerous discussions of machine sentience, or depictions in various forms, from 2001 to Dark Star to Demon Seed (there’s none of Proteus’ threatening megalomania from Will) to Star Trek: The Motion Picture. Presumably, again, the reason Transcendence never runs with the baton (if we discount ineptitude, which we can’t to be fair) is that this isn’t AI; it’s actually Will’s consciousness up there, so the lip service to the discussion in a couple of scenes becomes irrelevant. So too do any existential musings on whether there’s any soul involved in the transference of mind to a digital format. At pretty much every turn, Pfister avoids taking the thought-provoking route. He seems keen on a Malick-esque wonderment in terms of visual style (which would suggest Johnny’s soul does live on in the Internet), and the script is keen on a “love conquers all” sign-off (so dismissing a reductive or rationalist approach).


While it’s a nice sentiment, that all along Will has been trying to heal the world for his beloved, there’s no emotional heft to the Casters’ relationship. Hall gives it her all, but it’s too much for too little character and too little support from Depp. About the only really compelling scene is the one where Evelyn screams at Max to leave after he voices his objections to uploading Johnny, and there’s a nagging feeling throughout that this is based on plot expediency rather than a grieving woman acting in a state of confusion.


The problem posed by the transformation of humans brought on by Johnny’s transcendence is that it effectively takes away free will, even if it allegedly fosters some degree of autonomy. It takes away individual mental space and replaces it with a collective, hive mind. There’s no attempt to engage with what the changes mean to Will’s army of augmented humans; whether they are happy to exchange autonomy for Will to live through them. They have no appreciable voice, aside from Martin (Clifton Collins Jr) who is rather remote and insubstantial; perhaps he hoped Evelyn would change her mind and reciprocate when Will uses him as a potential fuck puppet (a scene that, along with many others, is designed to make you think computer Jonny is a nutter). It’s true that Martin asks to be reconnected when he is unplugged, but just because you’re like the high of drugs doesn’t mean they’re good for you. The point is, the movie does nothing with the idea; it’s an interesting twist to have the perceived violation of free will welcomed, since it goes against the central tenet of pretty much every sci-fi movie (it is our individuality and separateness that makes us human), but it goes untended.


The nanotech subplot (aren’t we all sick to the back teeth of nano tropes in science fiction by this point?) is a cumbersome magic wand device that further disengages. Okay, the singularity idea brokers leaps in understanding that would allow science to suddenly look like magic. That doesn’t mean it has to be visualised in such a dull, pixel-heaven form. And this self-replicating technology seems curiously fixated on the Internet for survival. Shouldn’t it be able to exceed such limitations by its nature? Well no, because uploading a virus as plot solution has become a Hollywood failsafe. Additionally, as others have pointed out, shouldn’t that be only Will’s surviving nano droplets under his garden copper mesh? Evelyn didn’t get a chance to be uploaded, so maybe love doesn’t conquer all after all. Incontinent plotting does, though. The visualisation of the hybrids is quite ropey too; and isn’t it lucky that, as soon as Martin has been upgraded and is wandering about lifting heavy machinery without breaking a sweat, his image is captured and put on the web (and couldn’t super Johnny just have blocked it?) Of course, this a movie where the monitors displaying Will feature a repeating glitch despite the perfection in every other aspect. Just, because, you know, it looks cool.


There are a couple of nice moments and sequences. I liked the idea of Evelyn descending on a semi-ghost town I the middle of the desert and transforming it. But mostly this is derivative or moribund or both. If there’s no clear call on whether technological advance is a good or bad thing, this isn’t a result of carefully considered ambivalence. It’s because the makers aren’t posing their questions with any insight. There’s a bookend of a world without the Internet and the rumination that it feels so much smaller; Pfister lends this a nostalgic quality, but it’s no more thought through than Paglen’s crazy R.I.F.T.ers.


Nobody is doing their best work here. By underplaying, Depp at least avoids drawing attention to himself (some have charge that this is a poor performance; really, it’s just a rather indistinct one). His polonium-chic look is the closest he’s come with his latter day forays into the make-up chair to Edward Scissor Johnny. Hall wastes her energy. Bettany struggles for dear life against a script that makes him look or sound like a moron in almost every scene. Transcendence possesses a particularly under-nourished B-movie script that diminished rather than elevated by its production values, cast and uncertain debutant director. It takes familiar science fiction devices, debates over consciousness, the concept of the soul and computer sentience but is unable to sustain them with form and substance. The result opts out of any real drama and conflict and leaves a whole lot of room for dead space, ineffectuality and unintentional silliness. This isn’t the worst film of the year so far, but it’s the most disappointing.


**1/2


Comments

Popular posts from this blog

She writes Twilight fan fiction.

Vampire Academy (2014)
My willingness to give writer Daniel Waters some slack on the grounds of early glories sometimes pays off (Sex and Death 101) and sometimes, as with this messy and indistinct Young Adult adaptation, it doesn’t. If Vampire Academy plods along as a less than innovative smart-mouthed Buffy rip-off that might be because, if you added vampires to Heathers, you would probably get something not so far from the world of Joss Whedon. Unfortunately inspiration is a low ebb throughout, not helped any by tepid direction from Daniel’s sometimes-reliable brother Mark and a couple of hopelessly plankish leads who do their best to dampen down any wit that occasionally attempts to surface.

I can only presume there’s a never-ending pile of Young Adult fiction poised for big screen failure, all of it comprising multi-novel storylines just begging for a moment in the Sun. Every time an adaptation crashes and burns (and the odds are that they will) another one rises, hydra-like, hoping…

Dude, you're embarrassing me in front of the wizards.

Avengers: Infinity War (2018)
(SPOILERS) The cliffhanger sequel, as a phenomenon, is a relatively recent thing. Sure, we kind of saw it with The Empire Strikes Back – one of those "old" movies Peter Parker is so fond of – a consequence of George Lucas deliberately borrowing from the Republic serials of old, but he had no guarantee of being able to complete his trilogy; it was really Back to the Future that began the trend, and promptly drew a line under it for another decade. In more recent years, really starting with The MatrixThe Lord of the Rings stands apart as, post-Weinstein's involvement, fashioned that way from the ground up – shooting the second and third instalments back-to-back has become a thing, both more cost effective and ensuring audiences don’t have to endure an interminable wait for their anticipation to be sated. The flipside of not taking this path is an Allegiant, where greed gets the better of a studio (split a novel into two movie parts assuming a…

I don't like bugs. You can't hear them, you can't see them and you can't feel them, then suddenly you're dead.

Blake's 7 2.7: Killer

Robert Holmes’ first of four scripts for the series, and like last season’s Mission to Destiny there are some fairly atypical elements and attitudes to the main crew (although the A/B storylines present a familiar approach and each is fairly equal in importance for a change). It was filmed second, which makes it the most out of place episode in the run (and explains why the crew are wearing outfits – they must have put them in the wash – from a good few episodes past and why Blake’s hair has grown since last week).
The most obvious thing to note from Holmes’ approach is that he makes Blake a Doctor-substitute. Suddenly he’s full of smart suggestions and shrewd guesses about the threat that’s wiping out the base, basically leaving a top-level virologist looking clueless and indebted to his genius insights. If you can get past this (and it did have me groaning) there’s much enjoyment to be had from the episode, not least from the two main guest actors.

An initiative test. How simply marvellous!

You Must Be Joking! (1965)
A time before a Michael Winner film was a de facto cinematic blot on the landscape is now scarcely conceivable. His output, post- (or thereabouts) Death Wish (“a pleasant romp”) is so roundly derided that it’s easy to forget that the once-and-only dining columnist and raconteur was once a bright (well…) young thing of the ‘60s, riding the wave of excitement (most likely highly cynically) and innovation in British cinema. His best-known efforts from this period are a series of movies with Oliver Reed – including the one with the elephant – and tend to represent the director in his pleasant romp period, before he attacked genres with all the precision and artistic integrity of a blunt penknife. You Must Be Joking! comes from that era, its director’s ninth feature, straddling the gap between Ealing and the Swinging ‘60s; coarser, cruder comedies would soon become the order of the day, the mild ribaldry of Carry On pitching into bawdy flesh-fests. You Must Be Joki…

When two separate events occur simultaneously pertaining to the same object of inquiry we must always pay strict attention.

Twin Peaks 1.5: The One-Armed Man
With the waves left in Albert’s wake subsiding (Gordon Cole, like Albert, is first encountered on the phone, and Coop apologises to Truman over the trouble the insulting forensics expert has caused; ”Harry, the last thing I want you to worry about while I’m here is some city slicker I brought into your town relieving himself upstream”), the series steps down a register for the first time. This is a less essential episode than those previously, concentrating on establishing on-going character and plot interactions at the expense of the strange and unusual. As such, it sets the tone for the rest of this short first season.

The first of 10 episodes penned by Robert Engels (who would co-script Fire Walk with Me with Lynch, and then reunite with him for On the Air), this also sees the first “star” director on the show in the form of Tim Hunter. Hunter is a director (like Michael Lehman) who hit the ground running but whose subsequent career has rather disapp…

Luck isn’t a superpower... And it isn't cinematic!

Deadpool 2 (2018)
(SPOILERS) Perhaps it’s because I was lukewarm on the original, but Deadpool 2 mercifully disproves the typical consequence of the "more is more" approach to making a sequel. By rights, it should plummet into the pitfall of ever more excess to diminishing returns, yet for the most part it doesn't.  Maybe that’s in part due to it still being a relatively modest undertaking, budget-wise, and also a result of being very self-aware – like duh, you might say, that’s its raison d'être – of its own positioning and expectation as a sequel; it resolutely fails to teeter over the precipice of burn out or insufferable smugness. It helps that it's frequently very funny – for the most part not in the exhaustingly repetitive fashion of its predecessor – but I think the key ingredient is that it finds sufficient room in its mirthful melee for plot and character, in order to proffer tone and contrast.

Ain't nobody likes the Middle East, buddy. There's nothing here to like.

Body of Lies (2008)
(SPOILERS) Sir Ridders stubs out his cigar in the CIA-assisted War on Terror, with predictably gormless results. Body of Lies' one saving grace is that it wasn't a hit, although that more reflects its membership of a burgeoning club where no degree of Hollywood propaganda on the "just fight" (with just a smidgeon enough doubt cast to make it seem balanced at a sideways glance) was persuading the public that they wanted the official fiction further fictionalised.

Like an antelope in the headlights.

Black Panther (2018)
(SPOILERS) Like last year’s Wonder Woman, the hype for what it represents has quickly become conflated with Black Panther’s perceived quality. Can 92% and 97% of critics respectively really not be wrong, per Rotten Tomatoes, or are they – Armond White aside – afraid that finding fault in either will make open them to charges of being politically regressive, insufficiently woke or all-round, ever-so-slightly objectionable? As with Wonder Woman, Black Panther’s very existence means something special, but little about the movie itself actually is. Not the acting, not the directing, and definitely not the over-emphatic, laboured screenplay. As such, the picture is a passable two-plus hours’ entertainment, but under-finessed enough that one could easily mistake it for an early entry in the Marvel cycle, rather than arriving when they’re hard-pressed to put a serious foot wrong.

He mobilised the English language and sent it into battle.

Darkest Hour (2017)
(SPOILERS) Watching Joe Wright’s return to the rarefied plane of prestige – and heritage to boot – filmmaking following the execrable folly of the panned Pan, I was struck by the difference an engaged director, one who cares about his characters, makes to material. Only last week, Ridley Scott’s serviceable All the Money in the World made for a pointed illustration of strong material in the hands of someone with no such investment, unless they’re androids. Wright’s dedication to a relatable Winston Churchill ensures that, for the first hour-plus, Darkest Hour is a first-rate affair, a piece of myth-making that barely puts a foot wrong. It has that much in common with Wright’s earlier Word War II tale, Atonement. But then, like Atonement, it comes unstuck.

I didn't kill her. I just relocated her.

The Discovery (2017)
(SPOILERS) The Discovery assembles not wholly dissimilar science-goes-metaphysical themes and ideas to Douglas Trumbull's ill-fated 1983 Brainstorm, revolving around research into consciousness and the revelation of its continuance after death. Perhaps the biggest discovery, though, is that it’s directed and co-written by the spawn of Malcom McDowell and Mary Steenburgen (the latter cameos) – Charlie McDowell – of hitherto negligible credits but now wading into deep philosophical waters and even, with collaborator Justin Lader, offering a twist of sorts.