Not More Than Meets the Eye
A Film Review of Transcendence
The first lesson anyone should take away from this film is that regardless of how good anything looks on paper, if the execution isn’t there along with the prerequisite attention to details, the end result will be much less than stellar. Johnny Depp, Morgan Freeman, Rebecca Hall and Paul Bettany in a Christopher Nolan production about a sci-fi allegory of technology vs. mankind vs. evolution (plus a $100 million dollar budget) seems like an instant win, right? If anyone pitched a studio board room on green-lighting a film idea by simply repeating the previous sentence, I’d wager that person walks out with a “thumbs up” nine times out of ten. The problem with Transcendence is that the net result has far less substance than the pitch itself, and its highly vaunted cast is nothing more than a cavalcade of cameo appearances.
I wouldn’t necessarily blame the story for this fairly flaccid film. The summer blockbuster is certainly no stranger to the dangers of unchecked technology and the particular subset of “AI’s Gone Wild!” has been quite effective at tickling our entertainment funny bones as we look no further than the overall success of mega franchises such as The Terminator and The Matrix. All of those films dealt with similar hooks and payoffs to the idea of society losing control over the exponential power of the computer. The essential difference is that Transcendence is a film dedicated to the theory and philosophy of such a fantastic scenario while Terminators and Matrixes are dedicated to the action. Normally I’m an advocate of infusing more brain cells into the meathead muscle of most summer blockbusters as it is one of the reasons I really enjoyed the Robocop reboot earlier this year. But there’s a difference between making a Hollywood sci-fi adventure and compiling a sci-fi documentary, and that’s exactly what I felt I was watching when this entire story was being presented to me.
Director Wally Pfister (long time cinematographer to Christopher Nolan productions) has a very large amount of exposition to communicate what with setting up the technology, explaining the key players, identifying the conflict and presenting the rationale for it all. While this task is no different from any other film featuring a substantive plot, Pfister chooses to deliver it all via oversimplified or overly technical dialogue. At various moments I felt like I was being lectured on the story as opposed to engaging with it to the point that this film seemed liked a very dressed up episode of Through the Wormhole. That is all well and good for the intellectual discourse, but when all of the screen time is dedicated to exposition, nothing is left for character development and that’s foul #2 on Pfister. Every character is thrown into the audience’s lap with no opportunity to like or dislike because no one seems to have anything else to say that isn’t fully concerned with the concept of AI, and that’s assuming they even have the luxury of spoken lines to identify themselves in the first place. Simply put, the audience must have more setup scenes towards the beginning of the film to get to know these characters beyond scientist #1, #2 and #3 which, by the way, is vital to making us care about what happens to scientist #1, #2 and #3. And speaking of #3, Pfister’s third strike manifests when he juxtaposes extreme close ups and wide shots of the natural world amidst this story of silicon. Of course, this is his inner cinematographer crying out to inject well framed artistry whenever possible, but this screen time would have been better spent showing the story with more action, by showing who his characters are without them telling us. Using what precious minutes of screen time available on these frivolous (but pretty) scenes further undermines a story already weakened by a bevy of plot and time gaps we haven’t seen since The Dark Knight Rises.
Action or rather the perils involved with the lack thereof is the second lesson that Transcendence demonstrates to the audience. Films that “tell” will never be as impactful as films that “show.” When I say action, I don’t necessarily mean hand-to-hand combat, ballistics, pyro and explosions (although more of all of the above certainly would have been welcome here). Even mundane actions like hand gesturing, changing posture, working at a desk, walking down a hall, can more effectively communicate the essence of a scene to the audience without spoon feeding us with dialogue or narration. Granted, everything I just mentioned happens in Transcendence, but these moments also play out as isolated scenes almost entirely devoid of anything else that’s meaningful as if to say, “ok so now we have to show someone getting from point A to B, and that’s it.” Nothing else happens during these moments, not even getting in a few more of those supposedly unavoidable exposition dialogues. Movement within the frame in addition to moving the frame itself keeps the ever encroaching static of shall we say, less than compelling dialogue, from lulling the audience into complacency. Hostilities are inevitable in a story such as this (despite its passive presentation) and the audience is treated to a few explosions and a couple clips of machine gun fire here and there, but to say any of this is standard fare for a hundred million dollar film production is laughable. The only thing that’s more pathetic is the effort that is made to combat the fictional threat to the globe in this film’s climax which directly suggests America (of all countries) has lost its proficiency in engaging in analog warfare (i.e. guns + bullets = body count).
Transcendence is not exactly an actor’s playground of a production in that it features some of the most forgettable performances by name actors in today’s Hollywood industry. Morgan Freeman and Cillian Murphy play characters that could have been deleted from every single scene they occupied, and it would not have made one bit of difference to the film. Kate Mara plays the most amicable and emotionally stable domestic terrorist you’ve ever seen on celluloid which would have been fine had she not been playing a character that happened to be someone that totally rationalized murder and torture at an up close and personal scale. Johnny Depp is literally not present for ¾ of the entire movie as the majority of his performance is embodied within digital displays and voice-overs. As provocative as his voice continues to be, his bread and butter has always involved some form of physicality in his performance, so of course playing a talking head in this film is the order of the day. Why on Earth shouldn’t he mail in his performance?
There are a couple of moments where Paul Bettany was allowed to emotionally uncork as his character was either having a revelation or pleading with others to have one themselves which ultimately paled in comparison to this film’s true main character: Evelyn Caster played by Rebecca Hall. I believe the jury is still out on this actress as she was passable in The Town, but deplorable in Iron Man 3. Regardless, she did an adequate job playing the part of a wife becoming unraveled by the despair of losing her husband to death. The problem was that I never bought into her being so in love with her husband, Will, because she didn’t have a lick of chemistry with Johnny Depp. As a result, her character’s descent into self delusion (which turns out to be not so delusional) didn’t sway me as much because her desperation manifested immediately and seemed a bit out of place. Still, she played the part of a computer wiz quite well in that she internalized everything perfectly for the camera and demonstrated uneasiness when confrontation via dialogue was called for in the script. Technically, Evelyn Caster is trying to save her husband’s life, but I would have appreciated her character more had she not wound up being the damsel in distress that needed rescuing herself.
Transcendence is the furthest from a must-see this summer and is easily my biggest, personal, disappointment of the year. So many intellectual properties from TV shows to comics to video games and films have tinkered with the questions of trans-humanism and evolutionary AI so well that it seems criminal for it to not have culminated in a satisfactory manner for this production. The potential was there, but the effort was for not. Few films can measure up to the action and effects of T2: Judgment Day, but when that film also outthinks yours (and theory/philosophy was what you were toting in the first place) the equation was clearly unbalanced as too many variables were left devalued.