Review: “Transcendence” (2014) Doesn’t Transcend Much

Movie poster for TRANSCENDENCE (2014)

Movie poster for TRANSCENDENCE (2014) — image source: Kurzweil Accelerating Intelligence

I continued my unrequited bromance with Johnny Depp by going to see his latest flick, Transcendence, which opened in U.S. theaters today. I have to admit, I was a bit nervous. Based on aggregate professional critic reactions on sites like Rotten Tomatoes (18% as of this writing), I was afraid that I would have to break up with him after seeing the film. Turns out I don’t have to go to that extreme. While the film didn’t make me like him any more, it didn’t make me start to dislike him, either. To paraphrase a line from the film that explains emotional ambivalence, you can love somebody and still not like all of the things they do.

Johnny Depp in TRANSCENDENCE (2014) -- image source: Talking with Tami

Johnny Depp stylin’ like a neuroscience lab cat in TRANSCENDENCE (2014) — image source: Talking with Tami

Despite the naysayers, there are things to like about this film, especially given its continuities and discontinuities with the past. Manohla Dargis noted this mixture in today’s New York Times:

Directed by Wally Pfister, a cinematographer making his feature directing debut, “Transcendence” is a dark, lurchingly entertaining pastiche of age-old worries, future-shock jolts, hot-button topics and old-fashioned genre thrills. It was written by Jack Paglen, who, while researching, probably thumbed through Mary Shelley’s “Frankenstein; or, the Modern Prometheus,” along with some Isaac Asimov and William Gibson.

Mention William Gibson, and I’m hooked. There is a hint of Neuromancer (1984) in Transcendence‘s story-line, along with elements of Richard K. Morgan‘s Takeshi Kovacs series (e.g., Altered Carbon [2002]). I’m not sure whether these are direct references or indirect — tropes taken the collective unconscious of science-fiction writers. However, there are risks as well as benefits to going po-mo and doing the “pastiche” thing.

Dr. Will Caster (Depp) is a researcher in artificial intelligence (AI) — probably the foremost in the world.  He and his partner (both professional and personal), Evelyn (Rebecca Hall), have come close to creating a self-aware AI, a goal known as “the singularity” to the AI world and renamed “transcendence” by Will. However, anti-AI activists (reminiscent of the ecoterrorists in The Eastsee my review) become more aggressive in their tactics the closer he gets to realizing his dream. Finally, the activists stage a multi-site attack that also targets Caster, inflicting a mortal injury that leaves him with only about a month to live. Confronted by his own mortality and his unrealized professional goals, he and Evelyn take extreme measures to address both challenges. It is then up to Caster’s former colleagues, Max (Paul Bettany) and Joseph (Morgan Freeman), assisted by FBI agent Buchanan (Cillian Murphy), to deal with the consequences of  Will and Evelyn’s actions. The opening scene of the movie has already informed the viewer that the end result will be the death of the Internet and a resultant world-wide blackout. Will this be the end of civilization as we know it?

I have been deliberately vague in my plot summary because this movie was just released; I don’t want to spoil it for other movie fans, although most reviewers usually don’t feel that this is important. Unfortunately, my decision to avoid “spoilers” makes the story-line of this film sound even less interesting than it is.

This is a movie that is probably more ambitious to be cerebral than many critics and movie fans will be able to take. For this reason, it is not the sci-fi thriller that many will be expecting. Thus, for example, hambo94 at Hcmoviereviews thought the storyline was “crap.” He added:

I couldn’t make sense of a lot of the film either, and it simply just wasn’t that interesting. Depp’s character should have become more of a villain, he just wasn’t evil enough or ambitious enough. I wanted to see him go really crazy with the power he had, this would have made for a more exciting film and would have inserted some uncertainty about the ending as not for a second did I doubt that the other characters would be successful in shutting him down.

I agree that the opening scene’s partial revelation of the film’s ending, followed by an extended flashback, certainly decreases the suspense. I also concur that Depp’s character made it impossible for him to be a true villain. He and (even more so) Evelyn are basically humanitarian scientists who dream of the good that AI could do in terms of solving the world’s problems. Rather than malevolent, they are merely “true believers” in their work. Thus, they are blind to the potential for unforeseen negative consequences. So the film’s writer, director, and editors had to use uncertainty about whether the “transcendence” that emerges in the film is really Depp’s character or not. Is it really the AI that he created in his final research project, impersonating him? This is certainly a thought-provoking plot device, but it doesn’t play on the screen in a way that will hold the attention of many movie-goers.

Dan at Dan the Man’s Movie Reviews picks up on Depp’s character’s obsession with AI, noting his messianic attitude (which comes close to making him a megalomaniac). Moreover, the writer and director of this movie did not push this angle to the point of thrilling suspense — another reason for the lack of excitement in the film. I also agree with Dan that the makers of this film also seem to have an axe to grind regarding the dangers to civilization of an over-focus on technology. As Dan put it:

Yeah, as you can tell, the religious-tones of this movie aren’t at all subtle; then again, nothing of this movie is, or what it’s trying to say is. Throughout the whole two-hours of this movie, you can almost hear director Wally Pfister yelling at the top of his lungs, “Too much technology can ruin one’s mind!!’ It’s a point that he makes abundantly clear in the first 20 minutes, and decides, “Aww, what the heck! I’m already there, so I might as well”, and hammers this point into our heads for the next hour-and-40-minutes. In all honesty, all of this preaching and ranting wouldn’t have been so bad had the movie been able to actually keep its the audience’s pulse, as well as its own, up and moving.

It’s tough to be cerebral, try to send a message, and also deliver a sci-fi thriller (which is what the movie’s trailers seem to promise). As Dan wrote, “Note this, Hollywood: You can’t be a total smarty-pants, and also be a bad-ass as well.”

So I guess it’s not Johnny Depp’s fault — his acting in this movie is good, although it did not result in a character as memorable as some of his previous roles. I can’t help but feel, though, that he’s somewhat less bromantic than he used to be. Maybe I’ll have to go watch Dark Shadows again . . . .

FRISCO KID’s Rating: three stars