Film Review: Transcendence

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Transcendence is the directorial debut from Wally Pfister and the result is a terrible mess of a movie.

There are a lot of big and interesting ideas going on in Transcendence, but none of them are examined in any interesting way. All of the ideas about the singularity and AI are ripe for exploration, and relevant to our times, but instead they feel mostly tacked on as an attempt to try and make this movie about as much as possible; which ultimately becomes about nothing. I don’t know how much Pfister is to blame for this mess, but as the director it’s on him to keep the script and editing coherent. He doesn’t really succeed after the early goings of the film. The set up for the picture is actually a really interesting premise, but it gets incredibly lost along the way.

A number of scientists are already breaking ground on a true AI and this is upsetting to some people that think that this is going to be detrimental to humanity as we know it. A rogue faction decides to intimidate these scientists and they do so by trying to kill as many of them as possible. This is a potentially interesting conflict that they establish, but the filmmakers abandon it almost immediately. These series of events ends up with the field’s most brilliant scientist dead, but not before his mind is uploaded and brought to life as part of the most sophisticated quantum computation of all time. It is from here that the film really starts to lose its way and that has everything to do with the film having no idea what it wants to be.

The film seems to want to be open to multiple interpretations, but instead of being vague, ambiguous or presenting challenging ideas, it takes the side of every possible argument over the course of the film. People change allegiances, mind sets and philosophies from scene to scene and next to none of it feels organic. Everything about this script is centered around trying to make as much drama as possible, except everything that happens is so illogical that it all just comes across as absurd and/or ridiculous. And a film that is trying to be as “smart” as this one is, cannot afford to be this illogical.

Sure, you can take liberties here and there with jumps in logic, but this film is full of plot abysses that defy everything in the world that they have created. That list is long, but the reason it is so bothersome is because the final half of the film starts to be one contradiction after another; often from scene to scene. The film seems to be playing by no rules whatsoever and the final couple “reveals” of the film come entirely out of thin air. This seems to be in service of some attempt to end on a twist or achieve some unearned emotional closure, but, like most of the film, none of it resonates.

The romantic subplot that all of the drama hinges on becomes unbelievable and ludicrous as the film rolls along, and while I can see what the film was going for they don’t earn what they go with. I also don’t understand why the decision that was made to shut down the world’s internet was made; especially given the information they are revealing about the truth to cyber Will in the end. I was baffled by the conclusion of this film.

The cast is full of great actors, and I love that a big movie like this stars Rebecca Hall and Paul Bettany (Depp is a supporting part), but the script is so bad it betrays everyone involved. The dialogue is nothing special, but it is the lack of any depth or logical character motivations that leave the actors out to dry. We are often just told why people should feel the way they do, and just as often we are not given any motivation whatsoever.

The pessimistic and fearful view of our technological future is also counterintuitive to a film that seems this interested in the good that it can do. We need more films about the good that super computing can bring to our future and while Transcendence does touch on some of those things it is always sure to put a skeptics point of view in the mix as well. I’m not saying we should blindly embrace technology, but being so negative and untrustworthy is a conservative mind set that only stifles progress; especially when the vast majority of technical advancement over the course of humanity has been to better and improve our world. Transcendence fails at trying to have it both ways in the end, and, again, this just ends up negating any message the film might want to send as it tries to send every message.

I could go on and on about how terrible this film becomes, but I will just simply say that you should by no means attempt to see this film. I don’t care if you are a Nolanite wanting to support his cinematographer getting into the director’s chair. I don’t care if you think Johnny Depp is amazing. I don’t care if you support big sci-fi cinema whenever possible. This is a dumb, boring and basically incomprehensible mess that should be avoided at all costs.

Transcendence is an F

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