Friday, February 20, 2015

Film Friday: Transcendence (2014) vs. Lawnmower Man (1992)

ed. ScottDS reviewed this film (LINK), but I wanted to add my own take. I recommend reading his take as well.

Perplexing. That’s what Transcendence is... perplexing. I don’t mean that the film weaves questions and concepts into a riddle that will leave you perplexed. No. I find the film perplexing because this should have been a better film than it ultimately is and I don’t entirely know why. But I think I know how to figure it out. Let’s compare this film to The Lawnmower Man.

The idea of our technology racing beyond our limits to control it and then enslaving the human race is an old one. The first time it appears on film, of which I’m aware, is Fritz Lang’s Metropolis (1927). Over the years since, this theme has repeated itself in many films, in everything from the disturbing Colossus: The Forbin Project (1970) to The Lawnmower Man (1992) to... well, Transcendence. In each case, the formula remains the same, it’s only the technology that changes.

Transcendence begins with an anti-technology terrorist group killing a group of scientists who are working to build the first true artificial intelligence. In the process, Dr. Will Caster (Johnny Depp) is shot, but appears to be ok. Unfortunately, the bullet is poisonous and Caster is given only a few weeks to live. In his last few days, he works with his wife Evelyn to try to finish the AI. He fails and dies. But as he lays dying, his wife comes up with a radical idea. Rather than build an AI, she records Will’s brain inside the computer. Caster has done this already with a monkey and his wife thinks she can do it with him.
Despite the odds, Evelyn succeeds with the help of family friend Max Waters (Paul Bettany). However, Max immediately recognizes that what they’ve created is not Will... it is something else, something dangerous. The grieving Evelyn dismisses Max and flees with the new computerized Will to where they can be safe. Will then begins to grow. Indeed, unfettered by the limitations of the human brain, the computerized Will soon becomes super smart and quickly learns to reach out to other computers everywhere to increase his power.

Soon, Will is creating amazing inventions, but using them to enslave the humans he helps as he builds a massive base in the desert. Eventually, the government realizes the danger and they struggle to defeat Will. The only option they have is to unplug the entire internet and in the process destroy all of modern society because everything is networked now.
Lawnmower Man is rather similar. Lawnmower Man begins with Pierce Brosnan as Dr. Angelo, a pacifist scientist who’s researching using virtual reality to enhance human intelligence. Like all good scientists, Pierce decides to experiment on his retarded gardener Jobe. Jobe responds quickly to the treatments and soon becomes normal. Then he becomes super-smart. Then he becomes so smart he transcends the limits of the human form and can begin manipulating computers and then even molecules themselves. He soon threatens to take over the entire world.

Why Transcendence Didn’t Work

Let me start by saying that it’s perhaps unfair to say that Transcendence didn’t work. My viewing experience was decidedly mixed. I began by almost turning off the film at the intro, which felt so derivative I felt offended. But I persevered and soon found a functioning, though hardly enjoyable film. Depp’s character is unlikable. Depp’s wife is bland. Paul Bettany is excellent as always, but gets sidetracked and removed from the film for too long. Morgan Freeman is solid, but is barely in the film. The plot is so predictable that it feels like the characters are rolling their eyes to pretend they don’t know what will happen next. And the pacing is very, very slow. But I will admit that the film offered just enough to make me curious to see how it all played out, though it felt like a chore to watch it.
I think what went wrong can best be demonstrated by a comparison to Lawnmower Man. Lawnmower Man offered nothing special. The actors are nothing special. The story is hardly unpredictable or creative. And the effects, while cool when released, felt old within a month of release and feel positively stone-ageian today. But what the film had going for it was three things: (1) the pacing kept the movie zipping along, (2) how each scene would turn out was unpredictable, and (3) you sympathized with the characters.

Consider the pacing. In Lawnmower Man, the film does a lot through montages. It skips ahead from key point to key point with only a few character development moments interspersed. Each scene moves swiftly and efficiently and you never feel like time is being wasted. By comparison, Transcendence wastes a ton of time. Its scenes are drawn out with huge pauses and long moments of reflection. This is how bad directors think they can fake drama when the screenplay itself lacks drama. Unfortunately, doing this robs Transcendence of any sort of rhythm and it leaves you feeling like the movie could be cut in half without missing a beat.

Moreover, the scenes in Transcendence all end the way you would expect. There is little in the way of drama or surprise either in the overall story or in the individual scenes. Even scenes like Johnny Depp being shot are so telegraphed that you never once feel an ounce of surprise. What made films like The Forbin Project work was that you never knew exactly how things would go. Was the good guys’ plan working? You didn’t know. In Lawnmower Man, you have all these moments where you just don’t know how they will play out, even if you know how the film must ultimately end. In Transcendence, nothing happens that you don’t see coming a mile away.
Finally, as lame as Lawnmower Man can be at times, you do come to sympathize with the characters. Jobe is a nice kid who twists into something evil because of the twisted logic of absolute power. Pierce is kind of an ass who starts to realize the mistake he’s made and you begin to pull for him, especially as the powers that be try to stop him so they can exploit Jobe. In both instances, it is the growth within the characters that causes your emotional reaction. Jobe is a good kid destroyed and Pierce is an ass redeemed, and it forces you to care about what is going on.
In Transcendence, there is no growth whatsoever. Depp is an arrogant ass from the first frame and he stays that way. His wife is bland and stays that way. Paul Bettany is the hero who is right from the opening and never needs to redeem himself or prove himself... nor does he ultimately do anything. The other characters are pointless. So ultimately, there isn’t a character journey in this entire two hour film even as nothing else happens except “character building” moments. This just reinforces the idea that the film is just wasting time.

These differences are key. Because of these differences, Lawnmower Man (which I repeat isn’t a great film, but is enjoyable in a B movie sort of way) comes across as a shallow film that holds your interest with decent action and an unpredictable story throughout, even though you know the ultimate ending. Its characters aren’t great, but they are interesting enough to keep you invested. Transcendence, by comparison, feels like a forced march. This is a long and needlessly dull film because it never once challenges or surprises you. Its characters are one-dimensional and indifferent; you won’t feel anything for any of them. So while the film appears like it should have worked, it really never does.



ScottDS said...

Is this the first time we reviewed the same movie? I like how you managed to choose a different poster image than I did. :-)

Interesting how you and I had similar reactions to Transcendence. As I mentioned in my review, I did a little research and found that the filmmakers may have backed off from making Depp's character too evil (which meant some big action scenes were written out). They realized the character they had written was trying to do good things with his powers (grow crops, etc.) so they didn't want him killing anyone.

And I agree, all the characters are rather one-note and the whole thing just has a dour feel to it.

Tennessee Jed said...

Have been without much in the way of heat and electricity over the first part of the week, and am just catching up on all things cyber. Well, there it is. If you are going to do a film on a well worn theme, you need to do SOMETHING to keep audience from saying "been there, done that, move along little doggie." Usually, modern film technology with all of the CGI, etc. is not enough." You said the magic words though, Andrew: "slow paced"! Who in hell needs that? I even got pissed in the first Star Trek film with the overly long pan the first time we see the Enterprise.

O.K., so maybe a particularly interesting character brought to like by a great actor. Pffft .... apparently not. I'm sure we all remember the days when we thought Johnny Depp was one of the most refreshing and cool actors going. He sure has made a lot of bad choices. I think he got trapped into trying to "out Johnny Depp" himself. It is one thing to be called quirky, but damn, we don't want unlikable and bland here.

So, I think I'm going to check out Inherent Vice. Despite the fact the critics like it a hell of a lot more than viewers, I am curious in a kind of American Psycho sort of way. Thanks to your review, that is probably more than one can say about Transcendance

ScottDS said...

Jed -

After P.T. Anderson's The Master, I'm in no rush to see Inherent Vice. I've heard some mixed things about it but I'm hoping it'll be one of those "so weird, you have to watch it!" movies... instead of one of those "so weird, it was horrible!" movies.

As for Depp, the man's talented but he seems to have fallen into a rut. It happens, and I'm sure he'll climb out of it sooner or later. (He's currently shooting Pirates 5... so maybe not yet!)

AndrewPrice said...

Scott, I think this is the first time. It's interesting that we did see the film the same way. I think that tells us something about this film.

Making Depp's character more evil or more good would have been more interesting. As it is, his character feels like just a standard evil computer that needs to be stopped. There's no real irony or anything interesting to watch.

djskit said...

Great to see some love for "Colossus: The Forbin Project". One of my favorites of the genre. That, and "Demon Seed". There's 2 to review!

AndrewPrice said...

Jed, You won't miss this at all. It is sad that Depp was once such a great actor, but today seems to have only two modes: lifeless Depp and drunken pirate Depp.

AndrewPrice said...

djskit, I'm a big fan of The Forbin Project. I'm not as familiar with Demon Seed. I should definitely review both!

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