I think it’s always interesting to look at films in context. Looking at the time in which a film is made, what is its contemporary relevance? Is it saying something about the specific age it is made, a particular moment, or simply humanity in general?
Could a film — could Transcendence — have been made only at this time?
Well, in Transcendence‘s case, certainly not. We’ve had AI/rapidly advancing technology/technological apocalypse films many, many times before. But there does seem to be a certain sense of appropriateness to making it now, at a time when most people are increasingly reliant on handheld versions of what fifteen years ago would have been supercomputers. A time when technology is so poorly understood that serious politicians talk sincerely about filtering out the bad parts of the internet.
Transcendence follows Dr Will Caster (Johnny Depp), his wife Dr Evelyn Caster (Rebecca Hall), and their friend Dr Max Waters (Paul Bettany), as they “science” their way towards AI. Except a “neo-Luddite” terrorist group led by Bree (Kate Mara) thinks this is a bad idea, and so kill different AI researchers in a co-ordinated attack, missing only the aforementioned trio, and Joseph Tagger (Morgan Freeman). With Will dying from a polonium bullet, Evelyn and Max work to upload his mind into a computer.
It’s a nice idea, ripe with techno-philosophical fruit for the picking. Except — and here is the problem — it didn’t really know whether it wants to make a fruit pie, or hurl them yobbishly at passers-by.
First the concept. If we leave aside the techno-gubbins which is the hallmark of this sort of thing — that jumped out at me were the impossibility of the premise, and the lesser crime of visible clouds of nanobots — then we are still left with the contradictions. Precisely what was going on with the digi-Will [note: not a spoiler, if you go this expecting the upload to fail, then you are going to the cinema to see the world’s most pointless film] changed from scene too scene with neither explanation or reason, and even the extent of his abilities changed from moment to moment as the plot required.
The contradiction of a humanist terror group merrily murdering people was referenced by Will — “not big on logic” — which was nice, but it didn’t give a pass to the later acts of the film where Kate Mara’s character was happily worked with by the “good guys”, forgetting just how many of their friends she had murdered. It was distracting. I couldn’t focus on Paul Bettany’s earnestness or Johnny Depp’s deadpanning if all I could think is “Why is nobody shooting/arresting/calling out this woman?” (N.B. Cillian Murphy’s FBI agent attempted to justify it by saying they’d blame her for the collapse of civilisation if it all went wrong, but that’s just idiotic. If civilisation collapses, nobody will care, or even know for that matter).
That leads me on to the other big problem. Johnny Depp. Depp has two stages of acting — zero and eleven. Phoning it in, or Jack Sparrow. And this wasn’t Jack Sparrow. Keanu Reeves could probably have done it better, but Depp simply seemed like a dead-eyed computer. That was probably the point, but so much of this relied on a subtle human acting which wasn’t there.
I did actually like many parts of Transcendence. The opening sequence, in a word where technology was reduced to so many oversized paperweights, was good. And the TED talk format, whilst a bit preachy, was good exposition. Even the slow, creeping pacing was a good touch, and it goes without saying that the cinematography was impressive. I feel that had the film had any idea what to do with the ideas it was raising, then it might have been every bit as powerful as something like Inception. But it felt clueless, spending two hours stumbling around in a hinterland of fear of a changing future.
And that, probably, was why the ending was such a contradictory mess. It literally seemed to go against how it had spent two hours telling us that technology worked. Looper‘s ending was a complete, contradictory mess. But then Looper was a good film, with fleshed-out characters and an engaging plot. Which is what Transcendence lacked.
I went into Transcendence wanting to like it. It’s a high-concept film about technology and what it means to be human. There was so much potential here, but instead the film went for an abiding fear, with a smack of sentimentality here and there. The sentimentality is fine, but it’s the fear which turned me off. It didn’t know whether to be more afraid and outraged about murder, kidnapping, AI, the technological revolution, or people. And whilst it seems to tilt at “who is the real monster here?”, it eventually decided that the (murdering) neo-Luddites were the good guys.
Which was both perplexing and disappointing.