Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Guest Review: Transcendence (2014)

by ScottDS

What happens when you take an A-list cast, a tantalizing concept, and an Oscar-winning cinematographer making his directorial debut? Unfortunately, you get Transcendence, a dull-as-dishwater thriller that opened to tepid reviews earlier this year. Loathe as I am to agree with the critics, they were right about this one.

Johnny Depp and Rebecca Hall play Will and Evelyn Caster, scientists working on the world’s first sentient computer. Will predicts such a computer will eventually create a singularity (the hypothesis that artificial intelligence will one day exceed human intelligence). During a presentation, Will is shot by a member of an anti-technology terrorist organization (RIFT, or Revolutionary Independence from Technology). With only a few weeks to live, Evelyn decides to upload Will’s consciousness into the neural network they’d been working on. Will’s best friend and fellow scientist Max (Paul Bettany) protests: “It won’t be Will… humankind isn’t ready for this…” Max is subsequently captured by Bree, leader of RIFT, and eventually joins their crusade. The government is also suspicious of the Caster’s situation.
Evelyn and Will – now in virtual form (à la Max Headroom) and connected to the Internet – build a techno-utopia in the small desert town of Brightwood. Will seeks to improve humanity and is able to use nanoparticles to improve the health of Brightwood’s residents, even restoring one man’s sight. But Evelyn soon has misgivings when she finds out that these people are now “networked” and can be controlled by Will. As his influence grows, RIFT develops a virus that can shut him down – the downside is that it will destroy any and all networked technology. The characters are presented with a choice: destroy Will, or risk being “assimilated” even as he improves the world. Evelyn carries the virus to Will, who has now reconstituted in human form, but she’s fatally injured during a RIFT attack. Now Will has a choice: let her die but continue to infect civilization, or upload her consciousness and the virus along with it. He chooses the latter: they both die and the technological world as we know it collapses.
This movie just… sits there. It’s not terrible but it’s not very good, either. The script (by first-timer Jack Paglen) raises some interesting questions and there are a few sparks of creativity, but what this film really needed was what I call the “conference room scene.” The characters speak in clichés and “movie speak” and what was missing was a serious philosophical discussion, or a series of such discussions, the kind Michael Crichton was so great at writing. (I’ve always said I’d love to see a stage version of Sphere, with the characters just sitting around a table debating science for two hours.) The topic of artificial intelligence has been done so much better elsewhere. I’ve read comparisons to The Lawnmower Man but I’ll also throw in the Star Trek: TNG episode “The Nth Degree.” Hell, this movie is pretty much a dramatic re-telling of the third act of Superman III, with Depp playing both the Richard Pryor and Robert Vaughn roles!

After reading this article, it’s clear that something was lost along the way. Paglen’s original script was on the Black List (no, not that list – this Black List is a yearly compilation of the best unproduced spec scripts). It featured some cool action set pieces with nano-engineered “super soldiers” as well as a love triangle between Will, Evelyn, and Max. The final film features no love triangle, and no big set pieces. Sure, there are some pyrotechnics courtesy of the RIFT goons… and that’s it. No super soldiers, just modified humans who don’t do much of anything. Since Will’s intentions were only benign, I suppose the filmmakers were hesitant to have him kill anyone. And if this was supposed to be some kind of twist (he’s not evil, he’s good!), then it was completely lost on me. At no point did I think Will would turn to the dark side. This film takes such a microscopic view of things – there’s no sense of dread or impending doom. We see nano-particles traveling along wind currents and forests re-growing and it’s like, “Gee, Will’s plan doesn’t sound so bad!” We also get a flash-forward at the beginning where we see Max in a tech-free future. So there… now we know how it ends, thirty seconds after the opening logo. What a horrible miscalculation!
Believe it or not, Depp can play regular people. He’s done it before. In this movie, he’s just dull. Truthfully, he’s better at playing the AI than a flesh and blood human being. Rebecca Hall is even worse as Evelyn. I couldn’t recall seeing her before but after looking at her credits, it turns out I’ve actually seen her in several movies. She’s either so good that she blends right in, or she’s so terrible that I am incapable of remembering her! She is also dull. Paul Bettany probably makes the best impression as Max, but how much better would this movie be if he were actually in love with Evelyn? Morgan Freeman sleepwalks through this movie as a friend and colleague of the Casters. Cillian Murphy is wasted as an FBI agent. Kate Mara is a non-entity as Bree. As mentioned in the previously-linked article, all the actors play the same emotion. Everyone here has one mode: dour. There’s no Spielbergian sense of discovery or creativity, and no humor.
Wally Pfister is a cinematographer by trade. He’s shot all of Christopher Nolan’s films since Memento and won an Oscar for Inception. Even with Nolan on this film as an executive producer, Pfister doesn’t contribute anything unique. Anyone could’ve directed this movie and while watching it, I couldn’t help but think what David Fincher would’ve done with it, or even Nolan himself. (I imagine a Nolan-directed version of this film would be equally dour, but there might be a few more sparks of genius within.) To be fair, there have been cinematographers who’ve successfully crossed over to directing, including Barry Sonnenfeld and Nicolas Roeg. Even Jan de Bont hit it out of the park with Speed… then he had to go and make Speed 2. Perhaps Pfister was ill-suited to the material. Or maybe he should’ve made his directing debut with something smaller. In fact, considering how they revised the original script, this movie could’ve benefited from being a smaller-budget B-movie. Perhaps we should wait for the inevitable SyFy Channel version with Lorenzo Lamas and Traci Lords!

As per usual, tech stuff is all top-notch. The Brightwood facility looks pretty cool, all sterile white and endless corridors. The cinematography is pleasant, though Pfister relies a little too much on “artsy” shots of water droplets and dewy windows, as if to say THIS MOVIE IS IMPORTANT! The score is droning background noise. The CGI nano-particles are petty neat, though. At the end, Bettany visits the Caster’s old house and notices a drop of water falling off a flower petal and into a puddle of oil… which is instantly cleansed. All of this takes place underneath Will’s home-made Faraday cage (a copper mesh which blocks electromagnetic fields). So perhaps there is hope after all?

Not for this movie.


AndrewPrice said...

Scott, Thanks for the review. It's too bad because I did have hope this would be a good film. But honestly, reading your review, I can envision this entire film and it's not something I really feel drawn to.

Anonymous said...

Andrew -

I'd say check it out if it comes to HBO or you get a free Redbox rental. I'm always open to the possibility that someone will see something different.

We talk about badly-written movies that are well-directed (like Star Trek Into Darkness), and well-written movies that are badly directed. This movie is worse... it's simply a mediocre script directed in a mediocre fashion. It's not enough of a clusterf--- to be called a trainwreck!

djskit said...

I was always a fan of those 70's "computer/the devil" take over the world movie ("Colossus: The Forbin Project" and "Demon Seed" come to mind) and was so hopeful that this would be in the same vein. But based on the all the reviews, passed.

Anonymous said...

djskit -

Yeah, I'd say you chose wisely, but as I said to Andrew, it might be worth watching once it comes on HBO.

Michael Crichton wrote a book about AI and nanotechnology called Prey. I recall liking it, but it's been a while.

Tennessee Jed said...

over the years, I have liked Johnny Depp, but he settled in on his Keith Richards pirate, made some bad choices, and seems to have gotten way to full of himself. For that reason, there was little chance I was going to invest limited finite viewing time on this one. Still, you have confirmed it, so while this review was not as helpful as some of your others, it is, as always interesting to read your reviews. Thanks for a nice review.

AndrewPrice said...

Scott, I will check it out when it comes to HBO, but I'm not going to pay for it.

Anonymous said...

Jed -

In the event you revisit this article, in what way was this review less helpful than the others?

Re: Depp, I admit he's been on autopilot and it would be nice to see him in something new. The trailer for his next movie looks like fun!

Anonymous said...

Andrew -

Good thinking. :-)

Kit said...

I agree about Depp doing mostly variations of his Jack Sparrow/Keith Richards character recently.

Anyway, the movie sounds like a good premise done poorly.

Good review, Scott.

tryanmax said...

Ouch! Ouch, ouch, ouch! I too had high hopes for this. Even as you dismantle the film, the concept sounds awesome. There's enough there for a long-arc trilogy. And you say they squandered it entirely! *sigh* I'll still probably catch it on Netflix.

tryanmax said...

P.S. Way to slip in a Max Headroom reference. Now there's a show that needs a film treatment.

tryanmax said...

BTW Would Sphere: The Play be performed in the round?

Sorry, sorry. I just had to.

Anonymous said...

Kit -

That is exactly what this film is. It was just... disappointing. I remember when the trailer first hit and the few comments I read weren't very positive... and that was pretty early on.

Anonymous said...

tryanmax -

[rimshot] :-)

I've actually never seen Max Headroom but I certainly know of it and Matt Frewer is one of those actors I wish would appear in more stuff.

Yeah, check it out on Netflix. As I said above, I'm always open to the possibility that someone else might like this.

Tennessee Jed said...

Scott - what I meant was this is a film I wasn't looking to see, and your review confirmed that it is nothing I should add to my "can't miss" list. It has nothing to do with the quality of your review :) The "most helpful" would be a film you review in which you sate something like "wow, here is one which flew under most everybody's radar that is really worthwhile." In other words, it is more luck of the draw based on the film you happen to review. Hope that makes sense

Anonymous said...

Jed -

Ah. Thanks for clearing that up!

Actually, if you want an entertaining movie that flew under everyone's radar, check out Tom Cruise's Edge of Tomorrow when it hits HBO. It doesn't reinvent the wheel and it's certainly no classic, but it's better than its box-office performance would suggest.

Even the studio doesn't know what to do with it!

Koshcat said...

Reading your review, it sounded like the Borg. Basically, I have already seen this movie or at least the story already. Nothing new here, nothing to see, move along...

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