For those who follow my site, you may have noticed one crucial film from last year wasn’t reviewed. That film was what critics named the third best of last year, Spike Jonze’s Her. I didn’t skip a review because I didn’t see it— I did —but because I found that its content was so dense, confounding, puzzling, enigmatic, but still altogether energetic and potent, that I didn’t know what to say. It was the only new film from 2013 that had that effect on me, and I knew to fairly judge the film, it had to sit with me. Multiple viewings became necessary, and my winter season was too busy for a second screening before it hits Blu. In Her, an AI named Samantha and a lonely and an isolated man fall in love. It’s a ridiculous premise, but one which posed every serious question we currently have about technology, and did so with a profound beating heart. We felt these concerns instead of just over-intellectualizing them, and, suddenly, “Can a computer feel?” “Where does human intelligence end and ‘artificial’ intelligence begin?” “Where are we going?” And, “Are we so different?” took on meanings both internalized and understood. Her dramatizes what futurists and science fiction writers have been confronting for decades, and does it with extraordinary depth, both scientific and human. I had Her on my mind a lot while I was watching Wally Pfister’s directorial debut, Transcendence. Their similarities run deeper than a premise in the same genre, but everywhere Her succeeds, Transcendence falters.
Transcendence is a thriller without thrills and science fiction without ideas. The title becomes an ironic tease of everything it should have been, but none of what it was. Johnny Depp plays acclaimed scientist Dr. Will Caster, a figure so loved in the scientific community that he gives talks in massive lecture halls and takes up entire covers of Wired Magazine. He’s made an extraordinary breakthrough towards developing a sentient intelligence and is eager to make the discovery that will unlock the ultimate AI, intelligence so powerful, he claims, that it will go beyond the collective minds of everyone in the history of the world. His partner (Rebecca Hall) and best friend (Paul Bettany) are researchers, and they help. An extremist group known as RIFT (led by Kate Mara), an anti-technology collective that believes technology to be the undoing of mankind, attacks him after a talk for corporate sponsorship. He’s impaired, and he and his colleagues realize the only way to save him is to upload his consciousness and become the first great AI. He becomes power hungry, and it’s unclear if he’s actually a well-intentioned solution to all of mankind’s problems or if RIFT’s concerns are valid. That’s the central mystery to Transcendence, and one that’s never completely solved.
The film’s problems are clear from the start. I’ve talked before about Gladiator’s masterful opening minutes, where I noted “over the film’s opening act (even first five or ten minutes) you understand his feelings, his desires, what he believes in, what he doesn’t, and ultimately what he fights for. You get a tangible sense of who he is as a person. It’s incredibly easy to go along with him on his journey because he’s such a well-established character.” Transcendence does the opposite. We hardly understand Dr. Will Caster. We’re told he doesn’t want to change the world. So why is he trying to build a machine that would inevitably redefine the future? In fact, why does he want to build the AI at all? We’re never told. He simply wants to. That’s as thick as characterizations get, and if you search for a reason to care about the characters, you will fail. This is a particularly bitter point in comparison to Her, which nails this aspect with sensitivity and bravado. Worse still, RIFT bears all the credibility of a local Marx impersonator handing out pamphlets on aliens at your local bus stop. It’s hard to imagine a group like this could ever exist, but when you notice they have “unplugged” tattoos and are apparently baristas at coffee shops, you wonder if they began as a counterculture movement in Portland, planning violent schemes as they sipped nonfat soy lattes.
The film has but one primary similarity to Inception, but instead of a special chemical to help people share dreams, you have Johnny Depp uniting the cast to sleepwalk through their roles. Bettany and Hall try and inject some humanity, and very occasionally levity, into the otherwise dour and self-serious film. It can be said of their work and the film as a whole that the ambition is admirable. They don’t sell their characters or the narrative as a whole, but they and the film try. Kate Mara is frozen by the stilted material, and she had no reason to take this part. The longer the film continues, the more it crumbles, and the shame is that it’s also so clear why. It’s almost a compliment to say a film doesn’t work but you’re not sure the cause, but in Transcendence it’s crystal. It’s as though the film remains in the outskirts of its own story, an extended montage of loosely related moments that never add up, making Transcendence an unwanted and frustrating enigma.
There is roughly ten minutes of action in Transcendence, and none of it is exciting. That’s a disproportionate amount between what the genre—labeled by Wikipedia as a science-fiction mystery thriller—requires and what the film actually delivers. Here, I use “action” broadly- I don’t mean how many minutes are donated to firing guns and detonating explosions, but the time spent trying to make audiences excited. The thriller scenes fall flat; a consequence of convoluted filmmaking, no technical ability to conjure suspense, and a total lack of established stakes. When the first major moment of action came, I realized something was wrong. Trailers usually edit their action into a series of visual jolts, a montage of firecrackers for the senses. As a result, the action beats in trailers are not final. They have missing frames and different editing that shorten their length for maximum impact, and the final version in the finished film is almost always smoother and more rhythmically assembled. But, in this first action scene, the set piece plays out exactly the same. I’m referring to when Will is shot, and it happens as quick, unclear, and as lifeless as its two and a half second glimpse in the trailer. Only, it wasn’t a glimpse. It was the entire scene.
This scene illuminates many of Transcendence’s failures as a film and acts as a prophecy of omen for all the film’s future failures. As shown in every trailer, Will is walking in the glass vestibule of a large building, distracted by the people around him. Someone suddenly jumps out of nowhere and fires a gun right at Will. He’s apparently hit. Scenes like this one, where a makeshift assassin pops into the frame and fires, have been done countless times. Thus, there have been multiple demonstrations on how to stage such a sequence, such as the famous scene in Hitchcock’s Foreign Correspondent. In that film, Hitch slowly builds suspense through invisibly giving the impression that danger looms. Then- BANG! An alternative approach is to use a wide-shot establishing the safety of the location and cluing audiences in that this is a safe space. Then- POW! Cripplingly, Transcendence follows neither.
There’s a third technique, the one the film most closely tries, and fails, to follow: the gunshot happens out of nowhere, but it lingers on the emotional and physical fallout. These techniques work since they either build up to the big moment, or use contrast to punctuate it. It merely follows Will, and without any visual or tonal opposition, the gun is fired. There is no suspense, no build up, no patience. It just happens. Immediately after, there’s a two second shot of Will in a Hospital before swiftly transitioning to other scenes. This is my only point of empathy with Transcendence, not even the film cares about its principle character. Not only was this a sequence made with no technical effort to be exciting, thrilling, or moving, but since it doesn’t show Will’s pain or the pain felt by proxy of his loved ones, we’re forced to be uninvolved. It’s as though the filmmakers felt that audience investment was a bad thing and took advantage of every possible trick to make us bored. If that was the intention, it worked. Fully awake walking into the theater, I gave my own interpretation of Kieślowski’s stunning 10-episode film, The Decalogue; only, instead of bringing the Ten Commandments to life, I yawned 10 times. That’s roughly once every twelve minutes for the math aficionados amongst you.
Some critics have wrongly accused Transcendence of treading down the dreary old road of “power corrupts all.” But this isn’t so. Transcendence wonders if that’s a factor, but gives no easy answers. The film is intended as an ongoing dialogue between multiple vantage points on technology’s future and makes no qualms of fronting its morally ambiguous treatment of the material. Who’s right? Who’s wrong? That’s for the audience to decide. This is one of the undisputed strengths of the film, and it’s easy to see how it was a conscious decision to give the audience challenging and debate-worthy material. You can picture Wally Pfister talking to his producers over how viewers will debate each side on the ride home, and might even see it a second time. I applaud films that provoke and subvert audiences, and even 2012’s disappointing (but still overly criticized) Prometheus asked tough questions. It’s a real shame then that Transcendence commits intellectual suicide. The script does such an excessive job minimizing the arguments of each side that we don’t even understand what the arguments are. RIFT”s accidental mantra, the peak of its rhetorical output, is the constantly repeated and obnoxiously campy phrase, “WE HAVE TO SHUT IT DOWN!” It’s the equivalent of scrolling through REDDIT and staring at the headlines without ever reading a periodical worth a damn. Crushingly, the same can be said for Transcendence, making it the first major blow for film fans this year.