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Transcendence Review: Tell, Don’t Show
Transcendence isn’t sure what it wants to be. On the one hand, it’s a deep exploration of the intersection between man and technology when technology has risen above man’s understanding of it. On the other, it’s a bland action techno-thriller whose characters exist as nothing more than stiff archetypes with virtually no arc. Throughout its 119-minute run time, you’ll have a series of thoughtful and poignant questions put to you, only to be undercut by painful sequences of telling rather than showing. It doesn’t make for a bad film, but it certainly isn’t a good one, either.
Starring Johnny Depp in a role that isn’t caked in makeup and quirky mannerisms, Transcendence is essentially a love story behind two brilliant scientists that branches into soft science fiction. Dr. Will Caster (Johnny Depp) and his wife Evelyn (Rebecca Hall) are working together to create a fully-self-aware Arificial Intelligence system. Their enthusiasm for saving the world and helping humanity reach its next step in evolution, however, isn’t universally shared. During a conference in which the two share their vision for a better world, Will is shot with a radiation-laced bullet that leads him slowly toward his death. In his final hours, he, Evelyn, and their research partner Max Waters (Paul Bettany) decide to do the impossible: upload Will’s consciousness and combine it with an advanced Artificial Intelligence system.
The movie’s idea of AI borrows elements from 2001: A Space Odyssey‘s HAL, although never does Will’s AI embrace the same sense of malevolence. Still, he’s all-knowing, controlling, and very, very creepy. Not long into the film, we’re faced with questions directly tied to Will’s suddenly limitless knowledge. Is it okay for him to have access to the vast corners of the internet? What could a mind do with that much power and knowledge in their possession? And, most importantly: how much is too much?
At a certain point, nanotechnology begins to play a central role in Will’s control of the world, allowing him the ability to improve virtually every aspect of organic life. At first, this appears to be a miracle; an opportunity for technology to improve our lives for the better once and for all. But, we quickly learn that this improvement of technology does not come without its price, and the price it demands is a bit too high for the rest of humanity to be comfortable with paying.
Particularly RIFT, the terrorist organization hellbent on keeping technological advancements in check. They’re great with their iPhones, thank you very much, and anything that might push things a step beyond smartphones and fancy laptops is something they simply can’t sit with.
Easily the weakest part of the film, RIFT exists only for one purpose: to generate tension. Weak, contrived tension. Never do we fully understand their motives, wants, or ideology. Instead, the movie crams guns into their hands, makes a point of giving them as many punches to the face as the story will allow, and shows us their primitive and derelict bunkers. “These are the bad guys,” the movie all but says throughout. “See their guns? See how mean and menacing they are toward scientists? You should be afraid of them!”
But we’re not, because we’re never given a reason to. In fact, the movie rarely gives you a reason to form any sort of emotional attachment to the characters whatsoever throughout. It tells rather than shows, often in the most egregious of ways.
“See these two people? See how cute they are together? Isn’t it obvious that they’re in love? Now, feel bad! He’s dying, after all, and Evelyn is really, really sad. See how sad she is?” No, Transcendence, I don’t. Merely having people cry and kiss doesn’t convey sadness and love on its own. Believe it or not, I actually have to feel attached to these characters. They have to have consistency, an arc that makes sense for their unique personalities and shows us some growth. Without it, I feel like I’m watching computers interact.
Evelyn is the most painful example of this. Serving as the audience surrogate throughout, she rarely ever gets a chance to do anything interesting, and never goes through any meaningful progression. We can only assume she’s super smart because a) the other characters say so, b) we see her sit down for some heavy coding sessions in the beginning and spit out computer jargon, and c) she dresses nice and gets up on stage to give a well-rehearsed PR speech about the benefits of Artificial Intelligence.
But this all goes to the wayside once things take a strange turn in the film. Once Will is uploaded to the AI, Evelyn spends the next hour and a half being manipulated, told what to do, where to go, and how to survive. Only once is she ever given the chance to make a meaningful choice, and that one is only in service of her man. Seriously, it commits nearly every sin of poorly-developed damsel-in-distress female characters.
“But she’s a genius!” Transcendence shouts loudly into my ear. “Didn’t you see her talking about the internet? Don’t you see her reading lines of code? Look at all those wires she’s working with!”
Yes, I see these things. That doesn’t mean it all ties itself together nicely, however.
In fact, Evelyn’s character issues serve as a nice summation of how the film utilizes characters overall. No one is really important; they’re all just pawns, interchangeably used to help drive the story’s sometimes-contrived ideas and messages. None of their motives are clear, their actions are rarely consistent, and characters are reduced to simple archetypes in order to give the film a superficial sense of diversity.Which is a shame, because had the story been airtight, Transcendence would have been a fantastic movie.
“But, didn’t you pick up on those awesome shots of cell phones lying in the dirt? Of old keyboards being used to prop doors open? Of wires and code, racing across a screen? Don’t you see the message here? This is a warning! People need to know that technology has a place, but we need to be wary of the influence we give it over our lives!”
Trust me, Transcendence, I picked up on that. You practically punched me in the face with it repeatedly. And you know what? Sometimes it works, but it more frequently fails. There’s definitely a great movie to one day be made of these themes and ideas. You’re just not it.