Transcendence (or perhaps more aptly titled Trance-enduscence), the new sci-fi thriller written by Jack Paglen and directed by Wally Pfister (a first feature for both, though Pfister was the cinematographer on many Christopher Nolan films), is about a scientist, Will Caster, who tries to turn the world into a dystopian Eden when his brain is uploaded into a computer.
The basic structure is as familiar as any standard piece of Victorian literature, the period when Mary Shelly wrote Frankenstein, a horror story about an egotistical scientist who tries to play God by creating a man out of a bunch of miscellaneous parts from dead bodies.
Things don’t go well, of course, as they never do in stories like this because when man plays God in real life, they create Pasteurization, find a cure for polio, discover the big bang and help astronauts land on the moon. When they play God in movies, they create murderous split personalities; unleash a plague that destroys the majority of the world’s population; or, if we’re lucky, just create a bunch of giant ants or grasshoppers.
Who says film doesn’t have its pulse on the real world?
And of course, in staying in trope with these men who play God movies, when Will is uploaded to the computer, he begins by doing good and creating nano-robots that can cure everything from broken bones to leprosy (though they can’t seem to perform plastic surgery and make everyone look like Brad Pitt for some reason, poor Clifton Collins, Jr.). However, Will ends by going mad, mad, mad with power.
Why is it that in movies, when computers gain sentience they never become Einstein or Mother Theresa or Ghandhi, but always become Charles Manson?
However, it must be said in defense of scientists and sentient AI’s everywhere, in Transcendence, the events leading up to the near-Apocalypse is not due to a scientist’s ego at playing the Almighty (actually, they kind of leave Morgan Freeman to play that role here, as he often does in films of late). No, not this time.
This time, the damage is done due to actions by two of the more typical female stereotypes in movies today. And I don’t mean the Madonna and the whore…you’re thinking of Italian films.
In the first stereotype, we have the evil, bitch queen, the woman who goes power crazy and sociopathic when she gets any sort of authority, the Diana Christensen/Nurse Ratchett approach. Here her name is Bree and she is the head of a techno-terrorist organization that kills people in brutal and merciless ways in order to uphold the sanctity of life (well, she is female, after all, so you can’t really expect her to grasp the subtleties of hypocrisy, can you?).
The second stereotype is Eveylyn Caster, Will’s wife and a scientist in her own right. She’s the one who actually initiates the idea of uploading Will’s brain. Why? Well, see, she’s a woman, and because she’s a woman, she’s more controlled by her feelings and emotions (as women are wont to do in times of crises), rather than logic and clearly thinking things through. The Mildred Pierce/Alex Forrest approach.
And let’s face it, in movies, hell hath no fury like women in control, even when they’re losing it.
Besides just being unimaginative in the approach to the female characters, this also causes some structural issues because the character of Will ends up being more or less relegated to not really doing a whole hell of a lot on camera. And since he and his actions are kinda suppose to be driving the story, that sort of gets in the way of any real forward momentum.
In fact, the movie can never really find any sort of rhythm or build. The pacing never seems to, well, pace. And it’s because of issues like relegating Will’s character to either being in a coma, or a bland face on a computer screen, that does the trick here.
And it’s also because none of the other characters are really given the chance to drive the story either. Bree, the evil bitch queen, disappears from the whole hullabaloo for quite a bit of time, as does Max, Will’s best friend and the one who helps Evelyn upload Will to the computer. Meanwhile, Evelyn is reduced to someone who does little but react to the way Will is changing the world (while taking a bit too long to show the slightest bit of disconcertment about it all, but, again, she is a…never mind).
If you add to that that the plot doesn’t really get plotting until about half way through when Will’s brain is uploaded, you sort of end up with a story that is in a perpetual state of being stalled. In fact, it’s a movie that never really gets going enough for it to stall.
And for a movie about the power of computers and robots and sentience, I’m afraid that the film ends up acting more like my computer when the cursor freezes and just won’t move.
With mellow voiced (a bit too mellow perhaps) Johnny Depp as Will; Rebecca Hall as the emotionally wrought Evelyn; Kate-House of Cards-Mara as the techno-terrorist Bree (complete with raccoon eye makeup); Morgan Freeman as the divine voice of reason (and what else can you use his voice for these days, anyway); and Paul Bettany as Max.
For a movie on the same subject that works much better, try Colossus: the Forbin Project, a lower key sci-fi film from 1970. It at least gets the go going almost immediately.