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Bring a pillow, or cup of coffee

By Brendon Field
On April 21, 2014

"Transcendence" isn't a chore to sit through, it's a challenge. It's one cumbersome, melodramatic scene after another that just seems to pull you underwater until you drown in your own boredom. When the credits rolled, the theatre was filled with yawns and the groggy sounds associated with a far-too-early morning. I walked out as exhausted as I would be after a double exam session, the mental imprint of the movie I had just seen murky and patchy; but I didn't need a clear memory to realize that it was awful.
"Transcendence" stars Johnny Depp as Dr. Will Caster, a computer scientist who is working on transplanting the human conscience to the cloud. After a series of attacks by anti-technology terrorist groups which leaves Caster mortally wounded, he decides to upload himself. Now with the entire Internet as his toolbox, he becomes an omniscient being. His wife Evelyn (Rebecca Hall) remains loyal to him but his best friend Max Waters (Paul Bettany) and colleague Joseph Tagger (Morgan Freeman) are skeptical and turn against him.
Certain that a few important details had phased through me as I fought off sleep for two hours, I have gone and read through a few summaries online. The plot on paper is downright captivating, especially with the concepts of man merging with machine now being discussed as a legitimate possibility a few decades down the road. I keep thinking back to "Transcendence" and wonder if the story I read actually belonged to it.
What sucks the engagement out of "Transcendence" like a black hole is the fact that it never shows us anything. There are no scenes of science in action, with characters just giving us results through dialogue. An early scene depicts a scientist uploading the brain of a monkey into a computer; rather than witnessing the effects we are told an hour later of the disastrous result. We get about a 15 second glimpse into the interface Caster is in the middle of, when it provides a great opportunity to view the world from the inside out. Instead, he just appears as a face on a monitor for the majority of his screen time. The film's perspective is quarantined to the central cast of characters. We see all of the effects of Caster's actions, which essentially reshape how the world is run from one small town that acts as the film's only location in the second half.
Another problem is Depp, who is in my eyes the new Nicolas Cage-a talented actor who has only appeared in bad movies the last several years. Caster is an empty character completely lacking in personality. Depp plays him so dry and reserved, he barely feels human. Hall gives a performance that contrasts so sharply with Depp's that their marriage, which is crucial to the plot, is hard to believe. None of the characters seem to be invested in a story where the fate of the world is at stake. They eventually talk about stopping Caster by shutting down the entire Internet and speak of it with as so little concern it may as well be the next day's weather.
The anti-technology group which serves as the film's antagonist is equally shallow. We are given little insight into their motivations and justifications for their actions. The idea of man creating a God through computing is brought up in the beginning, but the debate never breaks out the bedrock. I think back to "Contact," an excellent science fiction film that approached the science-religion dynamic with depth and thought. "Transcendence" doesn't even seem to care. Its own messages are so crisscrossed, I'm not sure it has any. First it's pro-science, then for a long time its anti-science, back to pro-science near the end and the final resolution just throws everything off the table in a noncommittal shrug.
"Transcendence" is the directorial debut of Wally Pfister, who is known as a long-time subordinate of Christopher Nolan. Pfister doesn't hide Nolan's influence, but he lacks Nolan's visual creativity and ability to control complexity. "Transcendence" feels like it was directed for television. The tone never shifts and no scene is made to feel more important than any other.
The film that "Transcendence" reminded me the most of was "The Host," another horrendously hollow science-fiction film that also acts as a two-hour lullaby. But at least "The Host" was infuriating enough to make me interested in finding all the things wrong with it. "Transcendence" shaves away everything potentially interesting about it until it's about as compelling as watching ice melt. What a shame.

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