Describing Transcendence as a star-powered, mega-budget rip-off of The Lawnmower Man is easy. It's also inaccurate. While cinematographer Wally Pfister's directorial debut is awful, we are duty-bound as lovers of art to bash it on fair terms--or not at all.
For starters, in The Lawnmower Man, Jeff Fahey plays a simpleton who gains hyper intelligence and near-limitless power, after his consciousness is uploaded to a computer. In Transcendence, Johnny Depp plays Will Caster, a shy super-genius whose consciousness is uploaded to a computer, after his mortal body is killed by an anti-tech terrorist group. Both characters lack a fundamental understanding of people to begin with (i.e. the nuances of personality and spirit), but Caster is a downright Vulcan who appears to learn nothing on his journey from detached nerd to detached program--where Fahey's Job grows a Skynet-like disdain for those he sees as roadblocks on his "Look at me now" quest for power.
Granted, Transcendence is supposed to be less of a comic-book fantasy film, one that deals with The Big Questions and tosses out geek-catnip references to The Singularity. But for a movie with such high ideals and a rock-star-cast pedigree, Pfister, first-time feature screenwriter Jack Paglen, and especially editor David Rosenbloom* all seem at odds with one another--resulting in a pretty, flimsy, and ultimately nonsensical fiasco.
It's rare that a film feels simultaneously overwrought and rushed. We're given five minutes to meet Will and his wife, Evelyn (Rebecca Hall) before he's shot with a radioactive bullet that plunges Transcendence into Lifetime territory. Aside from some half-awake proclamations by Depp that man's ultimate goal is to create God, and something or other about keeping the government out of his research, the audience is given no sense of Will as a man. So when he becomes sick and suspicious (maybe?) of Evelyn's relationship with colleague, Max (Paul Bettany), we're left to wonder about the trio's back story--and, more importantly, how he even feels about it.
What does Will experience most in his last five weeks of life? Fear? Jealousy? Anger? Eagerness to move into an undiscovered phase of human evolution? It's impossible to know because Depp, beneath all the dripping, pale makeup and funky cybernetic corn rows, is merely a sleepy figure with a distant gaze--much like the viewer.
The problems Will poses as a character pale in comparison to Evelyn's. Again, because we spend no time with these people before watching them rush to catch Transcendence's runaway-train of a plot, we can only scratch our heads at this woman--this allegedly brilliant scientist who, at the prospect Will's death, is reduced to the role of simpering, illogical girl for the remaining ninety minutes. Had Transcendence taken place in a week or a month, Evelyn's complicity in helping her new computer-husband build a race of cybernetically enhanced super-men would have been hard to stomach. But the film spans half a decade, and paints half a dozen shiny, flashing "Exit" signs for our beleaguered, bubble-headed heroine. By the time she ignores the third one, I'd given up on her and the movie.
Worst of all is what Pfister and company do with Bettany's character. Forget Will and Evelyn: Max is our real window into this world. Brainy and incredulous, he mocks the idea of digitizing Will's brain, and poses some pretty terrific warnings about the consequences--warnings that scientists might heed. He's routinely brushed off in hilarious exchanges that go something like this:
Honey, can you please connect me to the Internet? I think accessing the collective Wall Street database will really help me, um, grow as a person...yeah.
Sure thing, baby!
Evelyn, does that sound like Will? Ten minutes after coming on-line, and he wants to control the stock market?
Shut up! It IS Will! It IS! SHUT UP! GET OUT! GET OUT! GOOOOO!
Where did Max go?
Oh, um, he had to run, sweetie. Which street did you want to look up? "Wall" something?
But even Max falls victim to this film's horrid writing. Kidnapped and imprisoned by the anti-tech techno terrorists, led by Kate Mara (who looks and acts like the lost triplet from The Matrix: Reloaded), Max must fight his way back to society and stop two factions of utter madness from destroying the world.
Oh, wait, that doesn't happen. Max joins the revolution, thanks solely to plot contrivance and sloppy editing. At least he's not alone: as Transcendence zips further into the future, leap-frogging over really important events and conversations, every person we were introduced to in the first twenty minutes--who is not named Will or Evelyn--joins the underground movement. This includes the Casters' trusted computer-whiz friend (Morgan Freeman); the skeptical FBI agent (Cillian Murphy, cementing Transcendence's trifecta of a Nolanverse Batman reunion); and a team of faceless paramilitary goons, led by Cole Hauser.
The climactic battle takes place at the Casters' multi-billion-dollar research facility--which they developed in utter secrecy, within two years. That's right, kids, no one noticed the Umbrella Corporation buying up land and installing thousands of solar panels in the middle of the desert. I guess because Will owns the Internet, not one government official swung by to ask for permits on the super-secret tech lab being constructed five miles below the Earth's surface. The kicker: this ultra-sensitive masterwork of engineering has a single point of entry that's monitored by a single camera--not that one needs to protect a door whose lock appears to be permanently out of order.
And I use the term "climactic battle" loosely. Sorry if I implied that there were stakes involved, or an outcome that might make sense. Throughout the film, characters wonder aloud if the mega computer is actually Will, the sentient computer his program was based on, or a combination of both. The filmmakers tease us relentlessly, but never commit to any one answer--meaning that Will is either the world's most inept cyber villain or its most wishy-washy do-gooder. In the end, Evelyn joins the resistance (of course), and allows herself to be injected with a virus--which gets uploaded to Will-bot.
Will is okay with this, of course, because he is an utterly disaffected non-character. Despite the fact that he claims to want to help people, he effectively takes his Internet and goes home, leaving the entire world without power or communication. Pfister and company glibly assume the worst that will happen is people having to live without Hulu Plus and on-line banking--never mentioning a horrific landscape of crashing planes, flat-lining patients, and God knows what else.
If you're and Edgar Wright fan, you've caught on by now that Transcendence is really a rip-off of The World's End--complete with hive-mind flesh-bots and a zany mid-film genre flip. Unfortunately, Pfister opens with the post-tech-apocalypse (which looks more like an extended black-out than the end of the world), meaning we already know where all this is going. I don't mind such "spoilers" in movies, as long as the journey to the end is engaging and mysterious. There are a lot of problematic, unanswered questions here,** which the filmmakers clearly forgot to transcend early on.
*It's almost always impossible to know how much control an editor has over the finished film--versus how much influence a director may have had during the process. For the sake of argument, let's assume both men are culpable here.
**Such as, "Why, if doctors found traces of radioactive toxin around Will's bullet wound during an operation, did they allow him to leave the hospital--and not mention it?" And, "Is Rebecca Hall drawn to scripts where she plays doomed scientists whose nanotechnology gets the better of them?"