It’s possible for a film to elicit sympathy, if not actual appreciation, from me. By this I mean, not the subject matter, but the film as a project.
Netflix required that I watch Transcendence over last weekend. It was among many titles being removed June 1st. It ended up at the top of my list because I generally like Johnny Depp’s work and I like science fiction, if done well. Alas, this wasn’t done particularly well.
I can see what they were going for. I feel like the film-class professor who, being presented with a bumbling yet earnest student’s term project, sees that he really tried but just didn’t make it. Do I give him a B- to encourage future efforts, a D+ to show that it was a mix of the good, the bad, and the ugly? Or should the proof of the pudding be in its eating? You get an F.
The film was a critical and commercial failure. It is estimated to have spent something in the $100-150 thousand range to taken in around $100 thousand. Professional reviews were mostly bad with a wide range of problems cited.
For me, this movie committed two of my pet sins. It suffers from the small world problem and, despite being a science fiction genre film, it has a poor grasp on the science. I’ll explore these one at a time before I then explain why, this time ,I wasn’t quite so offended as I usually am. I doing so, I’m going to absolutely ruin the movie’s plot. If you’re not on board with that, stop reading now.
For those who have never seen and have no intention of watching the movie, I’ll provide a very brief plot summary. You also have the above video, the initial trailer for the film, which actually summarizes the first 2/3rds of the movie pretty succinctly. As we start out, we meet Will Caster (Depp), a preeminent artificial intelligence researcher. After what seems like a very lengthy introduction, he is shot by a terrorist’s bullet, part of a coordinated attack on “all” AI research. Though he survives the shooting, we learn the bullet was tainted with plutonium and that a slow death by radiation poisoning is inevitable. While he declines, his wife (a beautiful and similarly-talented AI researcher) and best friend/colleague decide to attempt to upload his intelligence into their research computer**. They succeed. Or do they?
First things first. The movie carves out for itself an insurmountable problem. About half-way into the film, the terrorist organization comes after AI Will and his host machine. He survives by uploading his code to “the cloud” in the nick of time. At this point, the scope of the film becomes world-wide; no longer a small terrorist groups against a handful of computer researchers. How do you open the stage up to include everyone, everywhere? Well, you can’t. Instead, if you are Transcendence, you continue on with the same small group of characters; three AI researchers, a dozen-or-so terrorists, and an FBI agent who also is an expert in AI. The movie contrives a reason why this must be so, but it requires much plot twisting to make it work. As a result, the climatic battle scenes end up looking goofy. Against this superhuman, all-powerful AI the government of the United States fields what looks to me like a WWII airborne artillery gun along with a mortar or two, brought to bear by a dozen or so military contractors. It makes the big picture of a civilization-altering leap in technology feel, instead, very small.
A bigger problem, in terms of the viewer’s experience of the film, is a lack of consistency in the “science” part of the science fiction. I mentioned, briefly, the ideal that, in science fiction, the fiction should flow from the science. This is of course a rarity bu, in this film, scientific inconsistency is pushed beyond where our disbelief can be suspended. Once past the opening discussion about the state of AI and how close or far away we are from the “singularity,” there remains little relationship between what is possible and what happens on-screen.
This is a shame. If they had tried to be consistent, it may have gone a long way towards saving the film. I’ll not dwell on the details, because there are many different ways this could have been addressed. Just for an example, a sentient AI, distributed across the world’s computer hardware, would be virtually unconstrained by human concepts of time. Generations of evolution could happen in seconds. So when we see one scene featuring a large operating room with robotic surgeons, apparently necessary to repair a persons injuries, and then the next scene features black droplets rising magically from the desert to instantly repair everything, is this in conflict with our assumptions or a result of them?
While normally I’d love to hammer away at the inconsistencies (don’t get me started about the whole computer virus trope), in this case (I’ve said) I’m willing to forget and forgive. Why? I think this movie did have a plan. Transcendence begs us to judge it within the framework of what it was trying to do, rather than what it actually did.
Re-watch the trailer #1 again, especially if you’ve seen the second trailer or watched the movie or even read a plot summary. The story it seems to be summarizing is a version of the Frankenstein genre. A brilliant, but out of touch, scientist loses a beloved friend. He/she/they can resurrect the lost soul, but should they? From the trailer, we see that they do, and apparently succeed. But have they? “That’s not Will,” we hear ominously.
Along with Johnny Depp, Transcendence stars Morgan Freeman. Here is another actor whose inclusion all-but-guarantees an interesting viewing experience. From the beginning, we are meant to see Freeman as the guiding expert, the voice of reason, and the arbiter of morality. If the mere presence of that soothing voice is not enough, he rejects the office birthday cake in the first quarter-or-so*** of the movie, letting us know he is wise and allowing his character to survive. Whichever side Freeman takes must be the side of the right and the good. So when Freeman tells us “that’s not Will,” we know that it must not be Will. That it is in fact an imposter. A monster. A creature of our own creation that will now turn against us.
This, I posit, is the key to this movie. It is structured as a classic “horror” feature. This explains the entire structure, including the “impossible” build-up to the ending. Like any good horror film, once we see the monster figured out; presumably destroyed, we come to find out that the monster has certain previously-unanticipated qualities, allowing it to bounce back. Look at Transcendence as a horror movie and it makes a lot more sense. Even the ending, over which many struggled to find meaning, makes sense in the horror genre. We’ve finally killed the monster by burning down**** the entire world only to see that it survives in a drop of rain. Except that it isn’t a horror movie. Morgan Freeman was wrong. It really was Will.
That’s the twist. On paper, it probably looks pretty good. The audience is taken through this horror movie only to learn, at the end, it wasn’t a horror film at all. There was no monster. There were no bad guys. There was only misunderstanding and fear and a failure to communicate. It’s a nice concept. It is a message that should be particularly poignant in today’s world. It didn’t work.
One positive takeaway from watching this is I got to see Rebecca Hall playing Will’s wife, a role that came two years before she played the titular part in Christine. By contrasting the latter with the former, it clarifies the extent to which Hall brought Christine Chubbuck’s personality to the screen. As I’ve said before, it’s one of my primary metrics in judging acting work. When I’m unable to recognize the actor on the screen, hidden behind her character, that’s some fine acting work.
It wasn’t a total loss, but I can’t say I recommend it.
*The second trailer remixes the scenes to create a very different impression of the final movie. The first one matches the interpretation that I want to emphasize. If you’ve viewed the whole film, you can mix and match these meanings to take away your own interpretation of the work. This was probably meant to be a strength of the film. It is probably a big part of the reason for its near-universal rejection.
**Which survived the attack as a result of their rejection of government funding. I thought this trying to make a political or philosophical point when it was introduced. In retrospect, I think they were just trying to contrive the “all the machines were destroyed but one” plot element that was needed subsequently.
***As I try to place key plot events in the film’s timeline, I’m not sure if I’m getting it right. I’m also not going to re-watch this one for the purpose of writing down timestamps. The fact is, the film opens up with ponderous exposition of rain and gardens and a married couple in love. It seems to take forever before our minds can discern some sort of story from the slowly-developing imagery. So while it felt like an hour before the terrorist attack, it may have only been a very long 10 minutes. Once again, this looks to be intended as an important part of the structure of the project. We, the audience, are given these puzzle pieces and we are left to assemble them. Yet, there is more than one way to put them all together. Did we chose the correct one? It’s a nice idea, however, when you’re struggling to make sense of what you’re looking at in the first place, the big “twist” and “reveal,” when it comes, fails to have its intended impact.
****My first thought seeing the desperate citizens under martial law was didn’t I just watch this?