How could the same studio release Her and Transcendence within a few months of each other? Spike Jonze’s film is a beautifully made, thoughtful, smart and of-the-moment meditation on how human contact survives in the networked world. Wally Pfister’s film is a generically shot, ham-handed, brutally stupid movie that’s about Johnny Depp Skyping in a performance for his paycheck.
Transcendence feels like a botched adaptation; the film is rushed and jumbled, and character motivations are often murky or elided. You could imagine this film is based on the kind of book that has a devoted following, a science fiction parable that many fans thought would be unfilmable (they maybe agitated for an HBO limited series). I kind of want to read that book, because beneath the bad writing and general cinematic incompetence of Transcendence are some cool ideas, a concept or two worth considering and even some neat characters. Maybe there’s a killer version of this script laying around somewhere.
The film stumbles right from the start. The whole story is predicated on the idea that there’s an organized and violent terrorist group dedicated to stopping Artificial Intelligence at any price, including murdering dozens of techies. You could argue that the current anti-tech demonstrations in San Francisco are harbingers of the sort of terrorism that Revolutionary Independence From Technology (RIFT) uses in Transcendence, but that wouldn’t make sense - the SF protests are all basically economic in nature, as the haves crowd out the have-nots. But that’s Transcendence - it understands that there are buzzwords and concepts, but not what they mean or how they truly work.
That group targets Johnny Depp’s Doctor Will Caster, who is on the verge of a major breakthrough in AI. They shoot him with a bullet laced with polonium (why? Why wouldn’t they just shoot him in the head? Who knows), which slowly kills him. His wife, Evelyn (Rebecca Hall), makes a last ditch effort to save the man by uploading his consciousness to an AI, against the warnings of their best friend, scientist-type Max (Paul Bettany). This is the sort of movie where Evelyn is a science person, which means she can perform brain surgery AND set up complex systems to record human brain patterns (all on three desktop computers, it looks like).
Max was right: almost as soon as Will is uploaded he puts himself online and amasses a bunch of power and influence. He and Evelyn set up a secret data center in the desert and advance human knowledge by leaps and bounds. But Will’s work - which includes nanomachines that heal the environment and make the blind see - seems to also be about subjugating humanity under his fascist control. Or so we’re told - most of the stuff that happens in Transcendence is people telling other people what’s going on in the movie.
Nothing in Transcendence works, and the movie flits between being laughably stupid and plain old boring. Johnny Depp quickly exits the movie, beaming in via video screens for most of the film. His performance borders on the somnambulistic, and his relationship with his wife lacking any passion or depth. This is a relationship that’s supposed to be the centerpiece of the question of whether there’s a ghost in the machine, so shouldn’t there be heat? Chemistry? Anything? There’s more going on between Bettany and Hall than Hall and Depp.
Other characters flit through the film. Morgan Freeman shows up as a guy who could easily - like with a couple of reassigned lines - be absolutely written out of the story. His performance shows that he knows it. Cillian Murphy is also totally extraneous as the FBI cybercrimes guy who sometimes stands around and/or drives a car. This is all indicative of how Transcendence feels like a botched adaptation - these characters don’t belong in the film and feel like they’re just there to satisfy the fans, who expect them from the (non-existent) book.
The most interesting performance in the film comes from Kate Mara, who turns on the crazy eyes as the leader of RIFT. Her terrorist origin story is laughable and her philosophy is undercooked, and she has nothing to actually do during the course of the film, but she’s just totally intense looking all the time. That was enough to keep me interested in looking at her, as my eyes slid off the screen the rest of the film.
Wally Pfister is famously Christopher Nolan’s DP, and this is his directorial debut. I’m not sure anyone would have guessed a cinematographer made this movie, which is visually generic and lacks almost any truly striking imagery. It’s lit well, I guess, but that’s about it. Beyond the look the film’s storytelling is clunky and inelegant; huge swaths feel like they were chopped out. One scene has RIFT kidnapping Max and then heading to Evelyn’s secret lab (she does brain surgery on her husband in a fucking abandoned building, of course) and somehow she knows that they’ve come to shut down her work when they’re just pulling up outside. How does she know this? Was there a scene where Max is able to warn her? Why was that cut? Also, Max is held hostage for two years but nobody seems to notice he’s gone.
The most awful thing about Transcendence is how it wastes interesting scifi concepts about ‘the singularity’ (which is basically a techie version of The Rapture, ie religious bullshit) and AI and our dependence on technology. The film’s approach to tech is informed solely by skimming articles in Wired and none of the film’s approach to science is convincing. Transcendence needed to work either as drama or as science fiction, and it fails as both.