Transcendence is so universally awful and painful to sit through that it becomes the rare kind of film where partway through you keep questioning if it’s worse than other similarly abysmal misfires. Is it worse than The Lawnmower Man? Yes. Is it worse than Hackers or The Net? Absolutely. Is it worse than batshit fantasies like Winter’s Tale or Dreamcatcher? Somehow it makes even less sense. Is it worse than The Ghost in the Machine, Monkey Shines, or Shocker? By miles. Is it worse than The Lawnmower Man 2: Jobe’s War? I hesitated on that one, but the answer is still yes. The last of these questions were answered before the halfway point of the movie and all I was left with was staring at the screen with my mouth agape in horror as it proceeded to get even worse. It’s the worst film of the year so far and considering how low that bar has been set already, I weep to think of anything coming out that could possibly be worse than this.
Johnny Depp stars as Will Caster, a tech sector golden boy who has been trying with his wife and research partner Evelyn (Rebecca Hall) to achieve singularity: to create a computer that would eclipse the intelligence of all of recorded humanity. Following a speech, Will is targeted for assassination by a violent group of “Neo-Luddite” terrorists and is grazed by a bullet laced with radiation poisoning. With no cure and about five weeks left to live (instead of finding a cure to something that’s ACTUALLY treatable in real life), Will unsuccessfully tries to complete his work. Desperate to make sure none of her husband’s research is lost, Evelyn teams up with Max Waters (Paul Bettany), a scientist who has been a part of an experiment to implant computer technology into monkey brains. They successfully upload Will’s consciousness to the internet, but almost immediately something feels off. Evelyn staunchly believes that what lives in the machine is Will, but Max is decidedly unconvinced as he walks away only to be kidnapped by the terrorist sect (led by a tatted up Kate Mara) and eventually helping them rage against the machine.
About the only people who could be fooled into thinking that Transcendence has any great or original ideas are those who would literally have to call a tech support hotline to find the on button on a computer and spend 15 minutes with the poor sap on the other end who can’t believe someone could be this stupid. The script from novice screenwriter Jack Paglen is so incredibly incredulous that I have a very hard time believing that any studio executive could have ever looked at the film as anything more than a tax write off. I have an even harder time believing that such a talented cast would ever agree to sign off on agreeing to appear in it. Did they all have contracts they desperately wanted to get out of before moving on with their lives? Everything here reeks of either contractual obligation or potential blackmail.
From an opening that gives away the film’s ending so badly that it ruins any stakes or investment one might have in the plot (not to mention starting off with Bettany narrating the film and then forgetting about it entirely until the very end where he just gets to restate what he said at the start) there’s no reason to believe in the world being created. Aside from one clip of newspaper reporters talking about the bombings there’s never a sense that this potentially game changing scientists live in a world that isn’t hermetically sealed off from everything else around them. The things that Will begins to do once he’s uploaded are so incredible and wide reaching that someone would have to notice. When Evelyn builds an entire ghost town for Will and the hundreds of employees who keep him alive to live in, not a single person outside of this one terrorist sect bats an eyelash. It’s a film that needs to build a world around it to succeed, but it never bothers to lay so much as a foundation to sustain any of it.
Transcendence is so obviously concerned with the idea of technology ruling our lives to a point where singularity could actually become a legitimate concern, but it has positively no interest in looking at any of the moral or ethical issues it has been raising. There literally just comes a point where Will enters the computer and all of a sudden Max regrets what he did and everyone now has to stop him. There isn’t even any discussion going into Will’s “soul transplant.” Things and stuff just happen with no explanation or reason to care about them happening. There’s a massive gap about 40 minutes in where it feels like an entire act of the story got axed, and unfortunately it was probably the one that bothers to explain things and established a believable timeline – another major problem because not only is it unclear if this takes place now or in the future, but because even title cards that show shifts in time can’t account for the astounding amount of work that people seem improbably capable of doing in a single day. It’s also a film with a problem that could have been easily solved in seconds if one person bothered to actually use Google Maps or through use of a satellite. For a film with such supposedly brilliant characters, I am astounded they can even dress themselves every morning.
It comes with such a po-faced didacticism that’s impossible to swallow any of this idiocy. This is a film that will eventually start using genetically altered digital rain to track people (where previously existing matter can be sucked up into the sky particle by particle with no fucking clue or desire to explain why or how this could ever work) and have Will evolve to a point where he can create mind controlled super soldiers from human, and yet there’s not a single wink and a nod to how ludicrous all of this actually is. It has no idea how something as simple as SOLID MATTER works, and yet it wants to bang the audience over the head with false profundity and a sense of wonder that doesn’t exist. Everything in this world is so dour and serious that it becomes laughable to the viewer, if only to keep from being bored to tears. This is only the second time I ever watched a film with an audience that was openly cat calling and mocking the film to the screen, so if you don’t want that experience in your life and you are still convinced you have to see this trash, then go on a weekday afternoon or wait for home video. Better yet, maybe just stay home and read a book. This film isn’t a book. It isn’t a screenplay. It’s a cocktail napkin scrawled on by a drunk well after last call that just says “What if…?” that was given a hundred million dollar budget.
No one ever seems amazed that a billion dollar shantytown could ever be built without people knowing. This is the kind of film where a computer laughably tells its girlfriend that they need to “get off the grid.” (HOW?!? You ARE the fucking grid!)It’s a film where the heroes and villains could both end everything in an instant by accessing simple to find information and yet no one does. It’s the kind of film that creates such pseudo-soulful dialogue as “Writing a paper is one thing. I want to know what’s in your heart.” and the call and response “Where are you going?” “Everywhere.” It’s grade Z-movie gold with misguided delusions that it’s an A-list sci-fi blockbuster from 1997.
Then there are the characters and performances featuring such talented people in such atrociously written roles that not even Atlas himself could put the film on his back and run with it. None of them have any depth with all of them vaguely defined in one or two words. Will is brilliant and possibly evil. Evelyn is conflicted. Their relationship consists only of a painfully basic love story that devolves into a painfully contrived Frankenstein styled love story that has nowhere to go but down. Max is vaguely conflicted. No one else is even allowed to have any other shred of character other than looking puzzled or concerned at everything going on around them.
Bettany fares the best out of everyone because this is precisely the same kind of role he always gets asked to play: the voice of reason. If anything is watchable in this abyss, it’s him. Depp has seemingly forgotten how to play a normal human being after being in roles that have required pounds of make-up for the past several years. He brings a marble mouthed delivery to the scenes where Will is still alive that shows almost contempt for being asked to play an actual human with human concerns, but even when he’s in the computer, that vocal trick goes away in favour of bland, not-very-threatening deadpan that suggests the world’s greatest supercomputer might just shut itself off out of boredom (which, admittedly, would have been the one big twist that could have saved this dreck). Hall gets cast out to sea in a role that I’m sure Palgen thought was really progressive when he wrote it for a female, but she’s nothing more than the dithering concerned housewife character and nothing like the brilliant scientific mind the film thinks she is. All Hall can do is cry tears of joy when Will comes back and quiver her lip a bit when it turns out that Will might not be who he says he is anymore. It’s no her fault she sucks. She’s simply following orders.
They still have it better than the immediate supporting cast, though. Poor Mara has to lead an entire laughable band of commandos with almost no motivation outside of a terribly written “I knew a guy and I read your stuff” speech to Max that Peter O’Toole couldn’t have delivered convincingly without a bottle of scotch in him. Those guys just hate tech because the internet is bad and they need to shut it all down. Watching her spend the entire final ten minutes of the film screaming “UPLOAD THE VIRUS!” while waving a pistol around is heartbreaking since she’s clearly above this.
Saddest of all, however, are Cillian Murphy and Morgan Freeman in the worst performances of their career, but again not because they suck but because their characters have positively no reason to exist and nothing at all to add. Murphy gets maybe two lines where he has to explain something, but his FBI agent seems oddly around only to do coffee runs and just “be available.” Freeman plays a former security agent for Will and he doesn’t even get to have a good speech or a single relevant thought to add. All he can do is shrug and turn to Murphy in all of their scenes together with a look that suggests both of them are thinking “Can you believe we’re getting paid for this shit?” There’s a scene during the climax where he should be terrified for his life and he just shrugs like there’s WOMP WOMP music in the background. Gene Siskel once graded bad movies by asking if what he was watching was more or less interesting than a documentary on the stars having lunch. I would have preferred the movie where Freeman and Murphy sit around outside their trailers over a bottle of liquor wondering why they were there. It would be positively Beckettian.
Now, if you have read this far and are familiar with the film already, you’re probably waiting for me to comment on this being the directorial debut of cinematographer Wally Pfister, the man who shot all of Christopher Nolan’s films (and who shows up here as an executive producer who should be ashamed of himself). You’re probably thinking, “Well, it has to look good, right?” Nope. Despite it being shot on 35mm and converted very, very poorly to the digital projection I saw it exhibited in, there’s not a single image of note in the entire film except for a few shots of sunflowers and wide shots of a desert.
Pfister also has no clue how to pace the film since the set-up takes about 20 minutes and then there’s another 105 minutes that feel like an eternity. He has no idea how to transition between scenes, so he always goes back to cutaways and nature shots that treat the audience like morons because they it implies that the viewer can’t keep straight the only four major locations where the film takes place. It’s dull, drab, and ugly to look at, which is shocking since it’s directed by a guy who seemingly keeps getting hired by Nolan because he’s allegedly some kind of stylist. This film just proves that Nolan is the mastermind of his films and that almost none of it can be coming from Pfister.
Transcendence is the kind of film that should have its negative and all copies of it on DVD buried in a landfill in a desert and encased in concrete so no one can find them. It’s the kind of film that doesn’t get released so much as it escapes from police custody. It’s the kind of awful movie that could only have been made by really talented people who mistakenly thought they could get away with anything because they’re really talented people. Everyone will bounce back, since this film is admittedly too slight to be a career ender for people already well established (except for maybe Paglen), but hopefully no one’s career gets lower than this point.