That Transcendence‘s title refers to a religious phenomenon perhaps best summarised as an out-of-body experience is indicative of how it approaches its evaluation of the western landscape, which is totally saturated with social media. Or, at least, it may seem saturated to us – Wally Pfister’s directorial debut provides an extreme vision as to how far things could possibly go, were the laws of physics to dramatically alter in order to suit his exaggerated outlook.
That the supercomputer which has been fed the brain of Will Caster (Johnny Depp) eventually manages to control the weather in an attempt to aid the infection of every human being on the planet (within one year, I might add) is high fantasy not even slightly rooted in any disclosed logic. Half of the screenplay seems to be taking place within the mind of Dr. Strangelove‘s Jack D. Ripper, albeit with the Soviets replaced by technology, a paranoid and almost Luddite view of the power of information storage. It’s not that the uploading of a human brain onto a hard-drive will likely remain impossible throughout the ultimate future, it’s just that Transcendence takes this idea and ruins it by dragging it way, way too far.
It’s serious enough for the first two thirds of the movie, which is partly accomplished through detailed reasoning but mainly through dead-eyed dullness. Then things take a Fight Club turn, in which chaos ensues beyond the point of reason, but it’s more of a lethargic, deus ex machina riddled chaos. I was half considering whether or not to argue that Transcendence‘s boring performances were an attempt to create lifeless characters, so disconnected with their technology-smothered lives that they no longer exhibit actual personalities, in a way similar to the deliberately useless characters in this year’s Godzilla remake. But then none of it turned out to have any actual gusto whatsoever, the characters having already achieved their out-of-body experiences made obvious by the fact that they’re not even fucking there.
Funnily enough, Pfister stated in an interview with The Wrap that his primary goal was to entertain the audience, then to provoke thought. Transcendence is stronger, for the most part, when it’s actually riffing on various topics, given that Pfister’s clearly fallen flat on his arse trying to put on a dazzling show. Not that I particularly require sci-fi to dazzle in order for me to enjoy it – quiet, micro-budget examples of the genre Computer Chess and Upstream Color were among my favourite movies from last year – but maybe in future Pfister should stick to brainstorming (and, you know, maybe work on that more as well).
Once his brain has been uploaded to the internet, Cage becomes the religious symbol the title hints toward. His accelerated intelligence leads to phenomenal scientific breakthroughs, and within two years (!!!) he has developed a way of regenerating parts of the human body. The crippled and ailing march up in droves to be healed by this god-figure, including one blind man who is granted vision for the first time in his life. More examples that I won’t mention for spoiler reasons supplement this, hinting at the idea that the internet and social media are what religion used to be – a constantly interactive, reflective and, yes, watchful presence – and is a truly tectonic cultural conversion with similar pros and cons.
Unfortunately, it’s rare that Transcendence reads this far into things, and when it does, it never goes any further, because it spends too much time darting between both sides of the anti- and pro-science divide, never settling into either one for so long as to garner any weight, or emotional resonance. Through looking at both sides of the equation, the film also establishes itself, completely obnoxiously, as a key article in the transition between pre-social media and social media centricity. Wally Pfister is of an age where he can remember both sides of that divide; at some point, no director or screenwriter alive will be able to say the same. The biggest shame here is that Transcendence doesn’t seem poised to inspire a rush of similar undertakings that could perhaps evaluate the situation a bit further, given its underwhelming 3% profit margin at the box office. Furthermore, I reckon it’d make a fantastic novel in the right hands anyway; take away the last half hour of the film and it’s basically a prequel to Brave New World, readjusted for modern times.
P.S. – What’s the deal with Morgan Freeman and Cillian Murphy basically playing the same characters? Their roles could easily be compressed into one and it wouldn’t even make a difference.
Transcendence was directed by Wall Pfister, written by Jack Paglen and stars Johnny Depp, Rebecca Hall, Paul Bettany, Kate Mara, Cillian Murphy and Morgan Freeman. It fumbles along for 119 minutes and is a production of Alcon Entertainment, DMG Entertainment and Straight Up Films. Distributed in the UK by Warner Home Video. Originally released in 2014.