by Callum Petch (Twitter: @CallumPetch)
I have come to the conclusion that films don’t know how to use in medias res, anymore. Transcendence opens 5 years after its story is supposed to start, in a post-apocalyptic America where the Internet is knocked out totally and technology seems to no longer exist. Sorry, I’ve just spoiled the end of Transcendence for you but only because Transcendence all but flips every single one of its cards in the first three minutes. That is not how in medias res is supposed to work! You’re not supposed to just show your ending and then wheel back to the start! This gives me no greater understanding of the plot at large, starting at the end does not hook me any more than starting at the beginning would and, most importantly, it’s still exposition! In medias res is supposed to start with action, somewhere exciting, to hook the viewer! Here, I’m just being told information I would have reached by the time the story catches up, anyway!
So, that’s how Transcendence starts. It does not get better. The film does have a great premise, which only serves to make the fact that it wastes it on rote and poorly executed technological scaremongering all the more disappointing. Scientist Will Caster (Johnny Depp) is shot with a radioactive bullet by a radical anti-tech terrorist group which will kill him in just over a month’s time. Desperate to save his life, his grief-stricken wife Evelyn (Rebecca Hall) convinces their friend Max (Paul Bettany) to upload Will’s mind and consciousness into the form of a functioning AI program, a concept that Will has spent most of his entire life researching and working on. Will and Max both agree and the trio set about trying to make it a reality. Will eventually passes on but, miracle upon miracles, the plan seems to work and he wakes up as an AI. Evelyn is overjoyed at reuniting with ‘Will’ but Max’s alarm bells are set ringing when the first thing the newly AI and self-aware Will asks for is more power…
What follows is nearly two hours of the same tone-deaf “all technology, regardless of the benefits, will DESTROY US ALL!!” message that I honestly thought we’d finally grown out of post-Y2K. Hell, one character actually name-drops the Y2K concept at one point to let the audience know just how much of a threat AI Will is. My issue is not the entire concept of the film, the “rogue AI” sub-genre of sci-fi is rife with realised potential, my issue is with the fact that the film never once lets up on its cynical nature. Everything AI Will does, and I mean everything, whether it be clever stock trading or helping fix up a run-down old town or developing renewable energy sources or furthering nanotechnology, is constantly portrayed with a sense of dread. That these are not things to be celebrated, but to be feared as they’re clearly being used as part of a larger scheme by an evil overload to take over the world!
The reason why this doesn’t work, and why it actually rather offends me, is down to the issue of tone. Unlike other films of this type, and apparently the upcoming The Wind Rises, this is not a balanced portrayal. It’s never “technology can be used for so much good, but it is also capable of being used for evil and destruction”, it’s always “anything that technology can provide, no matter how useful and helpful it may seem, is a time-bomb waiting to happen”. Late on in the movie, AI Will manages to perfect nanotechnology, which enables human beings to self-heal and have unimaginable strength, and not five seconds after this development occurs does the film reveal that it’s only possible if the person receiving the nanotechnology is connected to AI Will and the film all but screams “THESE WILL BECOME AN EVIL TERMINATOR ARMY LATER ON”. It never allows itself a moment to just show off the new technology in a positive light, it all has to be cloaked in this envelope of dread and fear for what will happen.
So, in the end, you’re supposed to side with the radical anti-tech terrorists. You know, the ones who kill, kidnap and torture people, blow up buildings and speak near-permanently in soliloquies about how technology is going too far and is a total always-unspecified threat to everything. Funnily enough, this didn’t take for me and such a sentiment only stayed with me when, surprise surprise, they’re proven totally right near the end. And, no, the last-minute switch of motives to “but it only did these things for love” also didn’t take because it rang hollow, a last-minute attempt by the people involved to try and cover their arses from me making this very criticism at the film instead of an earned plot and character development. You can’t spend 1 hour and 45 minutes bellowing one message as loud as possible and then turn around in the final 5 minutes and quickly shout something else. It’s going to feel false.
Or, to put it another way, watching Transcendence is akin to a person acting like Billy in this clip from The Grim Adventures Of Billy & Mandy for nearly two straight hours and it’s near insufferable.
But the fun doesn’t stop there, oh no! See because a film in 2014 has pulled out that old chestnut of “women shouldn’t science because their emotions make them unstable and will DESTROY EVERYTHING!!” and played it dead straight. Evelyn is given plenty of chances to shut down AI Will, is told repeatedly and explicitly that the AI is not the real Will and that it is a danger to everyone else (all by men, incidentally) yet constantly she refuses to listen with her entire counter-argument for about three-quarters of the movie being “It’s Will! It’s my husband!” If this were a film about grieving and learning to let go and accepting that loved ones are going to die, this tract would be acceptable and, hell, could even be handled well. Instead, she’s the sole person who is shown to be wrong about their methods of going about things, she’s the one that allows things to get to an irreparable and irreversible state and she takes at least 90 minutes (3/4 of the film) to be successfully convinced that she’s wrong because she’s a woman and “women and their emotions, amiright lads?”
And don’t even get me started with a late-game conversation that strongly posits the idea that AI Will’s code is this way because it more resembles Evelyn than it does Will and that she may possibly have inadvertently futzed around with the code and caused this whole mess. It is maddening, absolutely maddening, to have to sit through a film in 2014 that still insists that women and their emotions are volatile things and that men are the only sane force in the entire film. “But Callum, what about that girl in the anti-tech terrorist group played by Kate Mara? She’s speaking sense, seeing as the film proves her and her cause right.” That’s a good point you raise and one that can immediately be dismissed by the fact that she, along with everybody else on the anti-tech terror team are not characters. They are blank slates, not people, their entire character is their cause, the rhetoric they spout in support of their cause and their youth. That’s it. Hard to help buck the “women shouldn’t science” message template when you’re the barest definition of a character.
Fact of the matter, though, is I would not be fixating so much on these message issues if the actual film housing these messages was in any way interesting or well-made or less ponderously self-serious about everything. (Well, I mean, my 300: Rise of an Empire review clearly indicates otherwise, but still…) Yet, it is. A slew of likeable actors who otherwise should know better line-up to collect paycheques and nothing more, giving barely passable performances with the lone exception being Johnny Depp who is awful. He just does not seem to give one single crap at any point during this, constantly mumbling and staring off into space and seeming completely disinterested throughout. You could do a thing with this when he becomes an AI, make it seem creepier and uncanny and off-putting that way… except that he’s like that from frame one, WELL BEFORE HE’S BEEN SHOT AND DYING, LET ALONE UPLOADED! I haven’t seen Depp this checked out in nearly five years, he is just dreadful here.
The pacing is poor, both in terms of getting through it (the middle hour seems to drag on for ages) and in terms of story urgency and agency (there’s a two year time-skip in the middle of said aforementioned middle hour that basically makes it seem like R.I.F.T., the anti-tech terror group, spent the time sat on their arses twiddling their thumbs despite insisting that AI Will is a huge danger just moments ago). The scale is preposterously tiny with literally nobody outside of maybe 10 people being at all concerned or at all aware of the evil sounding self-aware AI that may or may not be building up an army. Despite costing $100 million, Transcendence looks cheap as all hell and no more so during its bafflingly stupid final 30 minutes, despite being an allegedly serious film.
And that extreme self-seriousness is the film’s major downfall here. It’s so serious and joyless, like it’s offering up some kind of cautionary tale, imparting some kind of wisdom that only it has ever gotten and which will blow our minds when it tells us! Except that its supposedly majorly smart wisdom is “science is scarewy” and its finale involves lots of explosions, Terminator-people and dreadfully rendered data bytes that act like vines. It thinks it’s Ghost In The Shell or something similarly smart about the nature of humanity, but it’s actually more Surrogates. If it didn’t have the feel of a big important serious treatise about big important serious things, it’d be easier to just write it off as a terrible dumb movie. Instead, it’s a terrible dumb movie that has pretentions of being a smart movie and those are smug, highly irritating sh*tfests to sit through.
You could have made something great out of Transcendence. A tight-knit relationship drama about coping with loss. A satire about how dependent we are on advancing technology. A thriller about an evil sentient AI that explores the worldwide consequences of such a thing and doesn’t demonise all technology on the straight-faced basis of the usually sarcastic quip “THIS IS HOW SKYNET STARTED!!” We got none of those films. Instead, first-time director Wally Pfister (previous of being the Director Of Photography for all Christopher Nolan films from Batman Begins to The Dark Knight Rises) has turned in a dumb piece of crap that thinks it’s got the key to the safety of future civilisation. A film that’s terrified of science, dismissive of women and women scientists and also a poorly acted, poorly paced, cheap mess. I felt insulted as I left the cinema, feeling like I had both had my time wasted and my intelligence stamped all over.
To think Wally Pfister turned down working on Interstellar to make this…
Callum Petch has cloned a human being, it is now a member of his band. Follow him on the Twitters (@CallumPetch)!