One would like to believe that some movies are stupid, and some movies are incompetent. Transcendence is both. If you have any friends that could be described as nerds, then you have surely heard them talk endlessly about the “singularity“, otherwise known as the moment where artificial intelligence would become more, well, intelligent than humanly possible. This futuristic idea of omnipotent computers, retitled “transcendence” because I guess it sounds cooler, is the central premise of the directorial debut of Wally Pfister (who you might remember as the cinematographer of Christopher Nolan’s movies, including his Oscar-winning work for Inception). It is also the most tediously boring movie I’ve seen this year.
If you ever wondered what people mean when they say an actor is “sleepwalking” through his performance, then I give you Johnny Depp in this movie. He plays Dr. Will Caster, a Steve Jobs-like figure who is an expert in artificial intelligence, and it’s incredible how little energy he puts into it. By the way he mumbles his dialogue, it seems either the character has suffered some kind of brain damage or Depp is simply embarrassed of the script, and I wouldn’t blame him for the latter. See, the story of the movie goes basically as follows: Dr. Caster is the victim of an attack by an anti-technology terrorist group that gives him radiation poisoning leaving him with a few weeks to live. His wife Evelyn (Rebecca Hall), however, won’t let go, as she comes up with a plan to use the technology developed by her husband to upload his brain to a computer and basically have him living on the internet.
The movie’s premise might be a little silly, but not necessarily a bad premise for a movie. The problem with Transcendence is that the movie doesn’t have anything particularly engaging to say about any of the things it is about. It doesn’t help that similar material has been recently explored more interestingly in Spike Jonze’s Her, and more entertainingly in Captain America: The Winter Soldier. I had my problems with those movies, but they’re nothing compared to the numbness of Trascendence, which judging from the way Will’s abilities as a computer turn fantastic to a point of not making any sense, seems to have been written by a high-schooler who decided to make a kick-ass Christopher Nolan-style movie after reading the Wikipedia page for the singularity (which I linked to above in case you are looking for inspiration). Since this is screenwriter Jack Paglen’s first and only writing credit, I wouldn’t discount the possibility that he wrote this when he was a teenager, but even if he did, the people that green-lit this project should have known better.
The biggest problem with Transcendence’s script, besides its silly imagining of what computers would be able to do if their power were unlimited, is that the driving force for the movie boils down to Evelyn Caster being an offensively stupid person. There is definitely some misogyny going on in a movie that depends on the wife character clinging to the creepy computerized version of her husband despite the fact that it is behaving like a comic book villain. She probably should have known the computer was up to no good the minute the uncanniest of uncanny-valley-computer-generated-faces of Johnny Depp appeared on the computer screen, but that she is still ok with whatever is going on by the time her computerized husband builds himself a secret layer in the middle of the desert is just ridiculous. Also, her blindness to it all presupposes that this woman, who is a scientist, has never seen 2001: A Space Odyssey, and that, in my opinion, is just ridiculous. The incompetence of the script is a shame, since the person who suffers the most because of it (other than the audience, of course), is Rebecca Hall, who is a great actress that Hollywood just has no idea what to do with. She can sing, so let’s get her a musical before it’s too late.
Also a big tragedy is that the stupid screenplay is only half of Transcendence’s problems. The other half comes from its director. History hasn’t been kind to cinematographers who want to transition into directing, and Pfister is no exception. I will say that for the first half of the movie, he does feature a surprising amount of shots that feature more than one character at a time, which is always welcome on this age of close-up over-reliance. Otherwise, though, this is as bland a style of filmmaking as you’re going to get. Pfister decided to only direct this one, with cinematography duties going to Jess Hall, and yet, it’s still unbelievable how unbearably lit and glossy everything looks. It is all so perfect in its lack of personality that it seems the movie doesn’t take place on any kind of reality that doesn’t involve humans. With the way Pfister shoots the character’s pristine houses and offices, it would seem this world is already inhabited by insentient robots.
Grade: 2 out of 10