Transcendence is a wannabe Science Fiction film with multiple personalities. On one hand it’s an anti-technology pro-human Sci-Fi movie, on the other it’s a pro-government anti-religion anti-cult Drama, then finally it’s a slow-burning Romance (well, sort of). With all these genre-personalities mashed together; what’s lacking is a character we can empathise with, a plot we can get hooked into, and more importantly; a point.
Transcendence flits so much between hollow opinions, that by the end the only thing keeping you awake is the confusion over who to focus your anger toward. I mean, firstly there’s Wally Pfister, a first time Director who should have, quite frankly remained Christopher Nolan‘s Cinematographer. With his almost constant focus pulling in an attempt to look high-brow and “Arty”, the end result is a blurry, sleep-inducing mess. Then there’s the slow piano soundtrack akin to some television Drama, which makes an already tedious film feel even more excruciating. On top of all that, there’s the weirdly morose Johnny Depp, who appears so tired, stoned, and confused from the outset, that he looks more ill in the opening scene than when he’s nearing death.
The worst element of the film however is the writing and the plot itself, courtesy of Jack Paglen (exactly, nobody’s heard of him). The screenplay is so vague at pinning down an antagonist and protagonist that half way through, you couldn’t give an artificially-intelligent fuck who’s who. Thanks to Paglen, Transcendence is not a Terminator 2-style anti-machine anti-technology movie or a Matrix-style reality vs. simulated reality pseudo-religious tale. It isn’t even a “Perils Of Virtual Reality” film à la Lawnmower Man; in fact with all the confused and muddled messages it puts across, Transcendence in the end makes B-Movies like Lawnmower Man look like one of the greatest films ever made.
The plot of Transcendence revolves around a dying Will Caster played by Depp who in an attempt to save his life, is uploaded to a computer and eventually the world wide web by his partner Evelyn. This idea seems like something we’ve all seen before, but this time we have Greenpeace style anti-tech-terrorists, nano-technology, a worldwide-web-enabled God, and half the cast from Nolan’s Batman thrown in to the mix. In fact, everywhere you turn there seems to be elements borrowed from other movies ranging from Twelve Monkeys, Gattaca, to Virtuosity, but all these components collide to make one of the worst and most preachiest films released for some time.
The film opens with the ever-so-corny scene where a store owner uses a laptop as a door-stop (since there’s no use for technology following a worldwide Y2K-ish shut-down). This would be fine, but the people in the scene look unhappy and all the streets look like they’ve been overrun with junk and weeds; so already there’s a barbed comment concerning the abandonment of technology. So okay, if we abandon technology; we would have a crappier life? At least that’s a point of view, but later Will becomes intertwined with his own Artificial Intelligent programme called P.i.N.N. (yes, the writer really thought that name was clever) and begins to use technology to heal people. So now technology is a good thing, right?
The scenes where we see queuing people joining Caster’s workforce (or maybe Religion, or even Cult) who are then also shown to be physically healed; show Depp as a modern day saviour. But the way in which the the plot works; the audience is made to feel that curing disabilities is somehow evil. When Cillian Murphy’s character first sees Will Caster on a monitor, he says “Jesus Christ!”, so it’s quite obvious that Depp is playing a contemporary Christ figure who heals the sick, creates better plants, better food, and a better Earth. But why then are the Government trying to shut him down? Is it really wrong to “play God” if your intentions are good? I guess God only knows since Jack Paglen never really answers questions that he himself poses.
Thanks to Paglen, we have multiple conflicting ideas. We have terrorists who essentially killed Castor by poisoning him with a radioactive bullet (and who are therefore part responsible for him becoming an A.I. God) but who later help the Government to take him down… so terrorism is bad or good? Or are terrorists the Government’s pawns and the Government are the bad guys?
All I know, is that in our real life, the only people who “play God” are the Government funded scientists and corporations. So as Monsanto bullies farmers into carrying their copyrighted GM seeds, and while the Government adds fluoride to your water, we’re supposed to believe that tinkering with food and genes is a bad thing and only the Government can protect us? Fuck Paglen and Hollywood for coming up with these twisted lies, in the real world, it is the Government who use tech for evil, just look at the NSA spying controversy and various Intelligence Agency “experiments” with Mind Control and gene manipulation. In addition, the only time radiation poisoning was used as an assassination tool was by some Intelligence branch of a World Superpower (allegedly); not by small-time terrorists. On a smaller scale, even the Y2K bug (which in reality had no effect on technology) was most likely a pre-millennial piece of Government propaganda. So in which world are we supposed to think the Government has our best interests at heart? It’s definitely not this one.
Back to Transcendence itself, it isn’t just the plot that is annoying and misjudged. Johnny Depp has been looking completely worn out of late (see him at the MTV Movie Awards?) and that isn’t a great look for the lead character. Then there’s Paul Bettany from Gangster No. 1 who seems to play Actor No. 2 in every film that he’s in. In this particular film, you never really know whether he’s the friend, the narrator, the bad-guy, the victim, or the sell-out. And while I’m talking about sell-outs, Morgan Freeman who played the Almighty in Bruce Almighty; in this film seems to be at odds with anybody else playing God. His character going from being a one time friend to Depp’s character to joining up with the Government faster than you can say “double-cross”.
With all these weird character persona’s and warring ideas, it leaves you wondering who we’re supposed to be rooting for. Are we to side with the technological demigod Depp or Bettany, Murphy, Freeman, and the Military/Government? Maybe the message of the movie is that it’s wrong to dabble with creation and destiny. Either way, by the closing of the film (which ends with an even more pointless comment about the love between the Castors) we couldn’t give two terabytes of shit about any of the characters or about any of the questions being asked.
Since Transcendence purports to be about a Technological Singularity; the point at which technology surpasses its creator, it is quite ironic that Hollywood films seem to be getting worse the better their technology gets. With Bettany’s character saying to Evelyn toward the end of the film; “Human emotion contains conflicting ideas such as love and hate”. When it comes to Transcendence, there is nothing to love and everything to hate.
Artificial & Unintelligent.