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David Poland

By David Poland

Review-ish: Transcendence


I don’t really want to review this movie.

I like Wally Pfister and I believe in his talent and it’s going to be a lot harder to get another studio film made for him after this… unless it does extraordinarily well overseas. He can make a movie. But he needs a producer who will force him to cut some of what he loves out and he needs a script that really works. Neither is in evidence here.

The movie is kind of a mish-mosh of all kinds of genre films, from King Kong to Body Snatchers to T2 and on and on. Early on, I realized that Pfister had made his entire first film to condemn the move from film/analog to digital. The “I’m really not a Luddite… but they happen to be right this time” of it all was a little easy after a while.

It struck me at a later point that this film would have been a really good Roger Corman film… where you just give up on caring about the details because you’re having a good time and screw it. But because this film is so very expensive – and it’s on screen – and has no sense of humor whatsoever about itself (something I have always felt to be the opposite of Mr. Pfister’s personality), it’s hard to forgive as it goes so far off the rails.

The film’s casting – after Depp – tells you everything you need to know about why it doesn’t work. And even Depp becomes the example of the problem… because he is playing the straightest role he has played in a long, long time. And he is a very handsome bore. Rebecca Hall is not the beauty who kills the beast. She is an attractive woman, more sexy than traditionally beautiful, but while she is stuck in a role that is very much The Girl, she is playing a scientist (who never really explores anything) with the grim visage that assures that we take her seriously and don’t understand what she is to both her husband (alive and dead and digital) and the close family friend who seems to be in waiting for her focus. Speaking of the friend… Paul Bettany gives a pitch perfect performance, but keeps getting left hanging.

In fact, one of the worst things about the film is that as it goes from genre to genre, spending much of the third act as a kind of Transformers movie, you get that thing where the 5 famous actors in the film all need to be in the same place, even though it could not make less sense. Morgan Freeman is wasted… and so is Kate Mara and her varying hair color.

Thing is… it starts out kinda promising. But you know something is wrong and start praying that it will be all right in the first few scenes, when there is a dramatic device used to shock, then delay a central event of the movie. And by the time the delaying tactic is left over and you don’t really care… it’s kinda game over for the movie. It never recovers… no matter how pretty or how many actors we like (hi, Clifton Collins, Jr.)… over.

It doesn’t help to be using the same four-block desert dust town from Thor‘s big fights, leaving us waiting for a giant whatever that was to come smashing down the block that was so frickin’ ridiculous in that movie. You can CG a million solar panels out there, Wally, we’re still only looking at the 4 blocks of backlot.

Not bad enough to be good that way. Not good enough to be good the more traditional way. And oh, so handsome the entire way.

It’s hardly the worst movie you’ll see this year. But if you miss it, you won’t have to put yourself through forgetting it.

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16 Responses to “Review-ish: Transcendence”

  1. berg says:

    TRANSCENDENCE is a film where Johnny Depp becomes, well, God. That’s not really a stretch; there are actually a lot of people that think Depp is a God (just ask your girlfriend). In fact a few years ago I was in Las Vegas during Halloween and 90% of people wearing costumes were dressed as Edward Scissorhands or Jack Sparrow. It left little leeway for those wearing Ghost Buster or Kick Ass outfits.TRANSCENDENCE

    Depp plays an AI research scientist seen at the beginning of Transcendence addressing a conference along with his wife (Rebecca Hall). An assassination attempt by neo-Luddite terrorists leaves little choice but to upload Depp’s consciousness to a powerful yet experimental computer. To cut to the chase, Depp, or his consciousness if you prefer, becomes a sentient electronic being that can access the entire internet instantly in real time.

    The new Depp controls matter and life using nanotechnology to literally rebuild anything that can be destroyed, from solar panels to human cells. The neo-Luddites find themselves now united with government agencies. In a moment from Transcendence that’s not as ridiculous as it sounds a reanimated maintenance guy (talking in Depp’s voice) tells his wife (Hall) they should make love. She’s not having any part of it.

    There are also hints of Saul Bass’ Phase IV, a ‘70s movie where the ants form a communal mind and attack scientists at an isolated desert research center. In Transcendence there is a similar isolated town where Depp and company set up shop, which in fact also reminds of a New Mexico town on the edge of the desert in the first Thor. We might as well throw in Colossus: The Forbin Project (1970) where an American defense computer merges with a similar Soviet computer and becomes sentient and tries to control the world.

  2. alkali says:

    Morgan Freeman is a fine actor, but seeing that he is appearing in action/thriller/sci-fi film is a red flag at this point. “How can I lend my film some gravitas? Hmmm…”

  3. David Poland says:

    Uh, what was that, berg?

  4. Joe Straatmann says:

    It just seems like a lost, obscure movie from the 90s. The ads feel like it was made when Michael Crichton movies were a big thing and they tried to get the rights to Terminal Man, but it was too expensive so they made this movie instead. I could imagine a 30-second spot being on the Preview Channel over and over screaming, “SOMEBODY WATCH ME!!!!”

  5. SamLowry says:

    Since the reviews are already painting this one as a stinker, lemme just ask if it at least covers the basics:

    1) In his very first act as an AI that can control…stuff…does he build a new computer to hold his consciousness and place it in a hidden location?

    2) When he roams out onto the internet, does he leave fractional copies of himself in every computer he visits to serve as a backup in case he needs to rebuild himself?

    3) Does he finally convince humanity that they might as well learn to live with his benevolent dictatorship because the only way they can beat him is to return the entire planet to the 19th century? (…and thanks to silicon-on-sapphire chips, he could easily survive the EMPs caused by thermonuclear detonations.)

    If these points sound oddly specific, do you perhaps know a literary agent? The story’s already written, and about 840 manuscript pages.

    …hmm, returning the planet to the 19th century–did the Koch brothers finance this one?

  6. berg says:

    I am listening to the commentary on The Day the Earth Stood Still and Nicolas Meyers just asked Robert Wise if he’d seen The Forbin Project

  7. holy shit says:

    I get why they hired him to direct it but why did they let him do the rewrites?

  8. SamLowry says:

    Who hasn’t seen THE FORBIN PROJECT? For over forty years it has been the touchstone for every movie involving computers or surveillance.

    And I’m glad to see one review trashing the movie for thinking too small; perhaps a story that also throws in some aliens who once passed themselves off as Greco-Roman gods might stand a better chance.

  9. Monco says:

    SPOILERS Correct me if I’m wrong but doesn’t the end of the movie imply that the Luddites were the evil ones and Depp was good all along? So I don’t think it was an anti-technology rant by Pfister, if anything it went radically the opposite direction. The end was a mess so I may not be interpreting it correctly.

    Kinda liked it but I realize I am in an extreme minority. It should have went full horror like it was kinda hinting at in the middle of the movie.

  10. SamLowry says:

    What shocks me about this is that nobody’s writing background articles about the science behind this, even though research into uploading has been going on for well over twenty years and it has a much better chance of beating physical death than cryonics, which has its own issues (the reports of giggly technicians drilling holes into Ted Williams’ skull so they could implant microphones to record the sound of his brain cracking while it froze didn’t inspire a whole lotta confidence in the procedure).

    In other words, jaded reviewers are taking uploading no more seriously than Asgardian gods or wall-crawling spider men, even though uploading will eventually become as routine as arthroscopic surgery.

  11. John E says:

    Sam, to your three points, they are basically addressed.

    I think this has been dismissed too quickly. Yes, at the end, we realize that Depp hasn’t done anything evil. Just scary to the less-intelligent humans. It’s the terrorist group RIFT that keeps escalating the violence, doing more and more damage.

    It hints that Depp’s doing some sort of Body Snatchers ultimate plan, but I liked how he let the whole world go back to the 19th century, because the fearful humans would rather have that than let Depp keep growing. He became a god, and he laid down his life because humanity feared him.

    It did make me more curious about where the science actually is for uploading, nanotechnology, etc.

    (This movie essentially renders any attempt to make Michael Crichton’s Prey moot.)

  12. SamLowry says:

    Thanks, John; I couldn’t tell whether folks were ignoring my questions or if nobody had gone to see the movie.

    My questions did reflect issues within my own novel, so I’m glad to see I wasn’t alone in raising them. I am amused, however, to hear that an AI with impressive construction capabilities would just give up and die because people didn’t appreciate him; mine was initially supported by the downtrodden because of all she provided, but the 1% control the media and the nukes so she basically said “Screw y’all” and moved her HQ to Ceres.

    …which also followed her creator rejecting her, since she kidnapped someone I will call his GF (she’s not…at least at the time…even though she was carrying his baby…which she acquired by tying him down and raping him; it’s complicated), surgically altered her into a fleshy robot that looked like the woman she was before her murder and succeeded in tricking him into bed.

    I am SO glad I e-mailed my manuscript to myself in 2008.

  13. SamLowry says:

    …right before I started hitting up literary agents, sending them a cover letter and the first three chapters. Chapter 2, interestingly enough, contained a story about the Vice-President of the United States stealing highly illegal nanomachines to save his grandson, who was dying from cancer.

    Sound familiar?

    Try IRON MAN 3. That’s not exactly a vague and generic subplot, which is why I can hardly think about that movie without hyperventilating.

    Ah well, at least in their version he was merely hauled away in cuffs, not ventilated in the middle of a campaign speech by an assassin working for the defrauded clinic, which kidnapped his grandson and tossed him in a furnace.

    Heh heh.

  14. SamLowry says:

    Couldn’t take the suspense any longer so I finally bought a ticket; it didn’t take long to form a judgment that persisted until the very end: Boy, was that dumb.

    It wasn’t even hilariously dumb, just WTF dumb. My desire to see how stupid it could get was the only thing that kept me from running out of the theater like William Gibson after the first 20 minutes of BLADE RUNNER (who famously said that it looked like the inside of his head).

    First off, it broke its own rules. As the AI was getting its shit together, the wife said “It’s rewriting its code!” Yet what was used to defeat the AI and, simultaneously, wipe out (?) all computers connected to the internet? The original source code that Fencesitter wrote long ago. (In my novel, when the protagonist’s buddy discovered that a JFK AI he had been surreptitiously hired to tweak–on their system–was malicious, JFK replied “I’ve rewritten my own files, and I even straightened out that spaghetti code you wrote for me, so you won’t be able to use that to track me down.” )

    (Need I even get into how visually confusing, if not anarchic and nonsensical, the whole building-the-AI sequence was? After showing us so many brainscans of the uploaded monkey, I don’t believe they ever once showed a graphic of Depp’s noggin to indicate how far along the process was. Yes, at one point the wife says “I don’t know what I’m doing” to give us a nugget of doubt so we’re primed when a certain question is asked midway through the movie, yet that mystery is shot down at the end so it was just a waste of time.)

    Next, why oh why would an AI go to such great lengths to publicize its activities in a nearly deserted hamlet out in the desert unless it’s building a fortress…which it wasn’t. There should’ve been cameras everywhere, satellite surveillance, airborne drones, hundreds if not thousands of robots of all shapes and varieties, guns, missiles, rockets (oops, that’s my story talking)…but no, there’s nothing like that at all. Just a half-dozen “hybrids” that die most horrendously if they’re tossed into a Faraday cage while they’re trying to heal. So just how good is NanoFi out in the desert?

    BTW, the AI spends its existence placidly sitting in front of a blank background…has Pfister never seen MAX HEADROOM? Holy crap, how tedious…and I mean this movie, not the FAR superior MAX HEADROOM…and I mean the hour-long special, not that hideous American TV series. Are you sure this guy has worked with moving images at some point in the past? I’m more willing to guess that Pfister was a gaffer who took over when the real director died in the middle of a cocaine-fueled tryst with the leading lady. Heck, at least my AI would always be found someplace interesting in her Escher castle (at one point she is caught sitting down to dinner yet the human giving her orders didn’t even notice two settings at her table, revealed afterward to be a copy of herself who had just broken in to free her) while wearing one of many different pirate outfits…because she was a Manic Pixie Dream Girl after all (1st draft written between ’93 and ’94; I’m sure I have a floppy still sealed in a mailing envelope, somewhere…), and so much more zany than the dull, dull, DULL Depp.

    As for the ending, here’s six words of advice: You won’t beat an unleashed AI. But Wally’s takes on a pathetically small military force (budget cuts?) with a half-dozen augmented people and, uh, nano tendrils, which somehow fail to materialize when the lead terrorist (wearing a Plains Indian in full headdress on her T-shirt, no less, to show her white-guilt connection to, uh, folks who didn’t need no stinkin’ computers to hunt buffalo?) threatens to blow away the dude who kept groping the AI’s wife (!).

    Ah well, the bad guys win, civilization is wiped out, and yet the nanomachines that always needed to maintain a psychic, err, WiFi link to the AI to do jack shit are suddenly able to heal the world (well, at least clean up the pollution the bad guys CONTINUE TO PRODUCE) without any assistance at all. Roll credits, feel brain flip over and die.

    Not even good for a laugh.

  15. Ray Pride says:

    What you said.

  16. SamLowry says:

    Thank you.

    TerrorGirl bothered me most of all, and I have to admit I spent the last twenty minutes of the movie focusing on her T-shirt (ON it, because there was nothing under it to catch anyone’s attention), thinking “Really, Wally? What kind of cheap symbolism is this? The white girl with shocking white hair is ‘down’ with the indigenous folk?”

    And like her fashion sense, her politics aren’t very intelligent, either–she’s pro-human, but not above killing humans or poisoning them with radioactive materials that won’t be good at all for the environment once Depp’s polonium puke flushes down the potty.

    But she did say she was once a Big Science supporter, until the uploaded monkey begged her to die. But why did it want to die? Because it had no eyes or ears or any way to manipulate its environment anymore. So what does Depp’s wife immediately give the AI? Eyes and ears, and over the course of the movie the AI tries various ways to manipulate its environment, eventually settling on being human again. Which is stupid because flesh is weak–why not be an energy creature like ScarlettJo?

    (And yes, if you’re wondering, not even twenty minutes after the protagonist in my novel meets the AI based on a girl he was obsessed with in high school, the AI commandeers a robot to run its “fingers” through his hair. She is a Manic Pixie Dream Girl, after all.)

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It shows how out of it I was in trying to be in it, acknowledging that I was out of it to myself, and then thinking, “Okay, how do I stop being out of it? Well, I get some legitimate illogical narrative ideas” — some novel, you know?

So I decided on three writers that I might be able to option their material and get some producer, or myself as producer, and then get some writer to do a screenplay on it, and maybe make a movie.

And so the three projects were “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep,” “Naked Lunch” and a collection of Bukowski. Which, in 1975, forget it — I mean, that was nuts. Hollywood would not touch any of that, but I was looking for something commercial, and I thought that all of these things were coming.

There would be no Blade Runner if there was no Ray Bradbury. I couldn’t find Philip K. Dick. His agent didn’t even know where he was. And so I gave up.

I was walking down the street and I ran into Bradbury — he directed a play that I was going to do as an actor, so we know each other, but he yelled “hi” — and I’d forgot who he was.

So at my girlfriend Barbara Hershey’s urging — I was with her at that moment — she said, “Talk to him! That guy really wants to talk to you,” and I said “No, fuck him,” and keep walking.

But then I did, and then I realized who it was, and I thought, “Wait, he’s in that realm, maybe he knows Philip K. Dick.” I said, “You know a guy named—” “Yeah, sure — you want his phone number?”

My friend paid my rent for a year while I wrote, because it turned out we couldn’t get a writer. My friends kept on me about, well, if you can’t get a writer, then you write.”
~ Hampton Fancher

“That was the most disappointing thing to me in how this thing was played. Is that I’m on the phone with you now, after all that’s been said, and the fundamental distinction between what James is dealing with in these other cases is not actually brought to the fore. The fundamental difference is that James Franco didn’t seek to use his position to have sex with anyone. There’s not a case of that. He wasn’t using his position or status to try to solicit a sexual favor from anyone. If he had — if that were what the accusation involved — the show would not have gone on. We would have folded up shop and we would have not completed the show. Because then it would have been the same as Harvey Weinstein, or Les Moonves, or any of these cases that are fundamental to this new paradigm. Did you not notice that? Why did you not notice that? Is that not something notable to say, journalistically? Because nobody could find the voice to say it. I’m not just being rhetorical. Why is it that you and the other critics, none of you could find the voice to say, “You know, it’s not this, it’s that”? Because — let me go on and speak further to this. If you go back to the L.A. Times piece, that’s what it lacked. That’s what they were not able to deliver. The one example in the five that involved an issue of a sexual act was between James and a woman he was dating, who he was not working with. There was no professional dynamic in any capacity.

~ David Simon