[22 April 2014]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
With its less than impressive box office totals and almost universal critical derision, many are calling Transcendence the first major “big budget” flop of 2014. There are even those who are taking the fallout even further, arguing that Johnny Depp’s tenure as an international superstar is over while pointing to his last few films—Alice in Wonderland, The Rum Diary, Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides, Dark Shadows, and The Lone Ranger—as examples of his fading A-list status. Of course, Alice was a billion dollar “disaster”, while the pathetic Pirates pulled in another nine figures.
In fact, it’s safe to say that, while not loved by most members of the media, almost all of these aforementioned films have found audiences (though almost all of them overseas). With a collection of upcoming films including a Stephen Sondheim musical (Into the Woods), a David Koepp spy action comedy (Mortdecai) and more Alice and Pirates, it’s safe to say that Depp’s fortunes, if not his fame, are secure for now. So if it’s not Depp’s fault completely (though he does sleepwalk through the film), why did Transcendence bomb? Why would a movie that had so much potential end up a failure?
As with any collaborative process, there are many reasons for this film’s failures. Here are at least five explanations as to why Transcendence didn’t live up to expectations. Let’s begin with the most obvious offense this movie manages:
#1 - No Scope
Whenever you start a film with a vision of a not too distant future where Luddites rule, where laptops are used as doorstops and information is carried via formerly conventional means, you want to know how this technological apocalypse happened. You crave more detail, a way of seeing the entire planet thrown into darkness and the riveting reasons why. This requires an immense vision. This requires scope. Sadly, Transcendence has none of this. It’s a big idea movie that stays small and personal in the telling. Remember when film fans savaged Steven Spielberg for not taking full visual advantage of the scenarios present in his remake of War of the Worlds to show us all kind of Martian mayhem? Well, imagine taking a similar, insignificant setpiece approach here and you start to understand the problem.
(SPOILERS AHEAD) If Johnny Depp’s A.I. doppelganger is really intent on world domination by offering scientific breakthroughs in return for human obedience (via chip implants), we expect to see some serious speculative spectacle. We want future shock stunners, images that trick our brain (via practical or CG F/X) into thinking we are truly watching the end of the world. Instead, director Wally Pfister decides that “smart dust” - read: clouds of nanotech robots - is the visual means of making this monster point. Depp’s scientist gets serious, and suddenly little wisps of microscopic miracles float into the air. Huh? That’s supposed to compel us to care? To worry about the fate of the planet? Not hardly.
#2 - First Time Screenwriter
Who cares if neophyte scripter Jack Paglen was part of the infamous Hollywood Black List (a yearly breakdown of the best unproduced screenplays in Tinsel Town)? Unless there was some serious doctoring after the fact, this effort must have really leapt off the page. How else do explain an overly talky take on artificial intelligence where we don’t care about the main characters, have even less sympathy for the eco-terrorists who set events in motion, and the individuals supposedly acting in the populace’s best interest - Morgan Freeman’s scientist and Cillian Murphy’s FBI agent - are unlikely and quite dull heroes. Maybe the various readers of this script thought a brilliant filmmaker could come along and infuse the film with some level of vision. What we got instead was the entry at number three.
#3 - First Time Director
Wally Pfister is a fine cinematographer. His work with Christopher Nolan earned him an Oscar (for Inception), several nominations (including ones for The Dark Knight, Batman Begins, and The Prestige), and enough adoration and clout to get a chance at that most important seat behind the lens. And what did he do for his own take on this kind of material? Did he maneuver away from Nolan’s influence to make his own mark on the medium? Nope. He simply did the same slick, high style thing that his mentor made famous. No oddball attempts at visualizing the cyber world. No cool, gimmicky stunt to sell his otherwise stale material. In fact, he’s almost literal in his approach, simply bringing the material “to life” without any significant artistic interpretation.
#4 - A Lack of Real Acting Investment
Some of those in our profession have pointed out that, aside from Rebecca Hall (as Depp’s devoted - perhaps too much so - wife) few of the actors in Transcendence seem to care about being involved in the film. Freeman, Murphy, Kate Mara (as one of the rebel leaders), Clifton Collins Jr. (as a local helped by the arrival of these scientists) and Paul Bettany (as the unenviable “best friend”) all appear on auto-pilot, either wringing their hands to show how concerned they are, or more or less inert without any real onscreen passion.
Indeed, the entire cast, including our name A-lister, seem more passive than anything else. There are times when you’d swear Depp is just reading his dialogue off a Teleprompter (ala his idol, Marlon Brando, who used to literally phone-in his performances via an earpiece feeding him dialogue during scenes). Even Hall falls into the category of caveat emptor. She’s got the biggest arc here, from doubter to devoted, but you can sense she’s try to sell her frequent freak outs instead of letting them flow organically from her performance.
#5 - An Unclear Idea
Finally, we have the core concept of Transcendence. Johnny Depp’s scientist character sees A.I. as a means of making the world a better place. When he is mortally wounded by the terrorists, Hall get the idea of transferring his consciousness into the computer. Suddenly, Depp is now a megalomaniac who want to rule the planet (or something like that) and he intends to use the miracle of technology as a means of getting people behind him. Granted, he will also “enslave” them just a little bit, but then again, that appears to go against his original theorizing. When, exactly, did he turn evil? Did jacking into the entire Internet really turn him into a nanotech despot. Besides, if you could cure your spouse’s cancer, your partner’s blindness, or your child’s terminal illness, wouldn’t you sacrifice a bit of personal will to save them?
This is the framing material of a thought provoking look at technology, playing God, and the difference between living and life under technology’s thumb…and yet, Transcendence drops the ball on this debate time and time again, going back to tried and true sci-fi formula to undermine these ideas. There is a really good film foundation here. Sadly, like most of the movie, it was underutilized and underwhelming.