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Non-Review Review: Transcendence

Transcendence is a passable b-movie suffocated by pretension and self-importance. What amounts to a conventional paint-by-numbers story about technology-gone-mad is suffocated by the weight it affords itself. The movie feels like it wants to be a meditation on technology and human independence, but instead feels like a re-heated fifties science-fiction horror lightly flavoured with millennial anxieties. There are good ideas here – the movie’s second act comes quite close to working, sandwiched between a fuzzy first act and a messy climax – but none of the fun that might excuse the sizeable flaws.

There's an app for that...

There’s an app for that…

“It’s Y2K,” an exhausted government agent remarks after assessing the movie’s technological threat. He might have the chronology a bit wrong, but he has pretty accurately gauged the mood. Transcendence would not feel out of place released between the Matrix sequels, capitalising on turn-of-the-millennium fears about the internet and advances in cybernetic advancement. Transcendence also harks back to a much more basic fear of technology, a concern that aloof scientists are so preoccupied whether a thing is possible that they never pause to consider the morality.

In a way, Transcendence feels like a film that missed a cultural moment – or that it missed one of several cultural moments. The basic plot outline could easily work in the wake of the Second World War, playing like all those b-movies concerned about the casual splitting of the atom – unsure about the thresholds that mankind was crossing. (Indeed, it’s telling that the anti-technology terrorists poison one of their victims using radiation.) Transcendence is a movie about how science doesn’t always keep pace with morality, an old chestnut of a story that was extraordinarily popular in the fifties.

He's not all there...

He’s not all there…

In the closest thing she gets to a character moment, the movie’s central antagonist recalls interning with a scientist who figured out how to transfer a monkey’s consciousness into a computer. “It was just… screaming,” she vividly recalls, in contrast to the champagne toast held in the lab to celebrate the momentous accomplishment. It’s a small moment, but Transcendence needs more moments like that – more context, more characters, more reality.

Of course, Transcendence would have worked just as well in the nineties. For all its fear about rogue scientists who refuse to consider the consequences of their discoveries, Transcendence is also rooted in a more conspiratorial and paranoid mindset. It isn’t just a rogue scientific discovery that poses a threat – it’s the establishment. When the artificial intelligence comes to life, it immediately seizes control of a small town. It monitors all video footage. It seeks to expand and control everything.

Here comes the science...

Here comes the science…

The face of its creator is branded everywhere, an all-seeing eye capable of observing absolutely anything. The intelligence is capable of manipulating financial markets, of anonymously purchasing everything it needs, of coordinating large-scale plans. In short, it portrayed as a fascist entity – an idea underscored by the shots of security cameras with six lenses. We’re never told why these cameras need six lenses, but they do evoke the eyes of some hostile alien organism – a spider prowling on the world wide web.

In contrast, Transcendence chooses to make a bunch of terrorists its heroes. These terrorists are opposed to the advancement of technology. They start a chain of events leading to the creation of this artificial intelligence, involving large-scale murder. Some scientists are poisoned. Others are killed in bombings. One is garrotted; another is shot. And yet Transcendence sides with these characters, who are portrayed in the style of rogue survivalists – fortifying themselves in a forest retreat with a minimum technology and a lot of firearms.

Computer love...

Computer love…

When the artificial intelligence inevitably begins to pose a threat, the United States government – which apparently consists of two guys sitting in a bar together – decides that the only way to deal with this problem is to ally itself with the terrorists. “We don’t negotiate with terrorists,” one half of the duo representing the federal government offers, but the other makes some vaguely cynical remark about needing fall guys, which suggests that the pair need to watch more of The X-Files. It would probably be easier to just blame them anyway after the fact.

To be fair, there is a slight hint that Transcendence might aspire to moral ambiguity. Perhaps we are meant to find these terrorists cynical and manipulative and opportunistic; after all, the artificial intelligence at the heart of Transcendence does genuinely try to make the world a better place, and does seem to act out of concern for others. Towards the end, some characters are stunned that the intelligence never actually hurt anybody, despite its somewhat creepy, voyeuristic, aggressive and domineering behaviour.

Radioactive, man...

Radioactive, man…

All of this is grand, but Transcendence lacks the skill to make this work. Instead, it plays like the vindication of paranoid fantasies about sinister conspiracies seeking to control the world from the shadows. There’s no hint of irony in the way that the former targets of the terrorist cell find themselves allied with a bunch of blood-thirsty would-be revolutionaries. When our protagonists come up with a fool-proof plan to defeat the computerised intelligence by turning everything off, nobody asks what this will mean for people living on life support machines, flying on planes or receiving surgery.

The script for Transcendence is just a mess. It opens with a scene set after the climax of the movie – effectively undermining any potential surprise that the film could offer; the audience immediately knows who will survive and can probably deduce who won’t and what will happen. The characters feel more like cyphers than individuals, with a minimum amount of development given to any of the characters trapped in the film. Indeed, the cast struggle to seem like more than two-dimensional caricatures.

The all-seeing eye...

The all-seeing eye…

The movie’s first act really suffers because the script doesn’t care about anybody in the story – it just wants to get to the point where it can tell some heavy-handed parable about technology and the human spirit. So the first act feels very much like a slog, as the movie dutifully sets up the entire premise of Transcendence, but with no real effort to explain why we should invest in this most generic of set-up. (It would almost be easier to just cut the first act entirely, which would help the film’s pace – it’s not as if they define the characters, they just drive the plot to the point that everybody watching the film wants to see.)

The script is riddled with all sorts of logical problems and story errors. These would be easily excusable in a cheesy b-movie willing to acknowledge its own goofiness; unfortunately, Transcendence plays everything far too seriously for its own good. As such, the audience can’t help but wonder how a pair of computer specialists are engaging in radical neurological surgery in the least sterile environment ever; or how the artificial intelligence’s omnipresence relies on the convenience of the plot. These are silly things to worry about in a film about a computer plotting world conquest, but Transcendence takes itself so seriously that there’s no choice.

He's a droid, and he's annoyed...

He’s a droid, and he’s annoyed…

All of this is a shame. Wally Pfister has learnt a lot from working with Christopher Nolan. Nolan’s influence shows itself in a number of ways, mostly structurally – Pfister has picked up quite a few tricks about splicing together shots to create a sense of actions occurring simultaneously. The coordinated terrorist attacks might feel a little like a contrived plot point, but the movie captures the mood quite well. There’s a sense of rising pressure and pending drama.

Pfister’s work looks absolutely beautiful. Transcendence is a very dark movie, but one that feels grounded in something resembling the real world, occupied by real people. In that way, Pfister seems to have learned a great deal from Nolan, particularly about verisimilitude. Even with all the advanced techno-babble and magic technology, Transcendence does feel like it is unfolding in a familiar world.

Being kept alive by computers...

Being kept alive by computers…

Unfortunately, Nolan’s scripts are designed to play to that sort of style. Wry humour tends to puncture moments of pretentious excess. Character moments help ensure that the characters inhabiting the world feel as substantial as the world itself. Nolan’s scripts are paced in such a way that they can conveniently leap over potential logic and plot holes, with the first act designed to build up enough momentum that Nolan can drive the rest of the film like a runaway freight train.

Unfortunately, Pfister doesn’t have that luxury. While his technical work on Transcendence is worthy and impressive, there’s a sense that the director picked the worst possible script; and that he was either unable (or unwilling) to fashion that script into something that might fit with his style. As such, Transcendence feels like a collossal misfire.

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