Friday, April 18, 2014

Transcendence: A whole new level of tedium

Transcendence (2014) • View trailer 
Three stars. Rated PG-13, for sci-fi action and violence, brief profanity and mild sensuality

By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 4.18.14

The White Queen in Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking Glass may have been able to believe as many as six impossible things before breakfast, but smart screenwriters limit themselves to one.

Expecting her former colleagues to be amazed, Evelyn (Rebecca Hall) shows Joseph
(Morgan Freeman) and Buchanan (Cillian Murphy) through the massive underground
complex that has been built to her deceased husband's specifications ... via his
AI avatar, who watches closely from a series of computer monitors.
Meaning, viewers generally are willing to stretch credibility and accommodate one massive leap of faith per movie. Transcendence kicks off with an intriguing premise and rather quickly unveils its fanciful notion. Fair enough: We buy it, for the sake of the impending drama.

But first-time screenwriter Jack Paglen doesn’t know when to quit. He piles absurdity atop contrivance, then gets sloppy with logic, basic human nature and socio-political behavior. By the third act, you’ll lose track of the glaring plot-holes.

Newbie director Wally Pfister doesn’t do much to improve the situation; in fact, he makes it worse. While he deserves credit for drawing compelling performances from his stars, Pfister also succumbs to the weakness suffered by most cinematographers who insist on helming a movie: too much reliance on arty scene compositions and camera shots, and a smothering atmosphere of Great Significance.

Pfister is best known as director Christopher Nolan’s visual amanuensis: the cameraman behind The Prestige, the Batman trilogy and most particularly Inception, for which Pfister won an Academy Award. He has given Transcendence the same labored, walking-through-glue self-importance that made Inception such a chore to watch.

Every scene seems to carry an invisible subtitle: “This is really cool, and very important, so pay close attention.”

Yawn. Wake me when it’s over.

And, as is the case with many first-time scripters, Paglen’s so-called “original” narrative begs, borrows and steals from many other, better sources. Avid sci-fi buffs will recognize strong elements from films such as 1970’s Colossus: The Forbin Project and 1974’s Phase IV, and books such as Greg Bear’s Blood Music and Michael Crichton’s Prey.

Finally, on top of all their other sins, Paglen and Pfister open their film in the aftermath of horrific events — thus ruining the suspense they quite easily could have built — and then flash back five years, to show us how everything went to hell. That’s an irritating cliché these days, and one that makes sense only if it later turns out that assumptions derived from said prologue are inaccurate, as a result of a clever twist.

No clever twists here. Just a long, slow descent into sci-fi silliness.

We meet computer scientists Will Caster (Johnny Depp) and his wife, Evelyn (Rebecca Hall), as the former gives a lecture on his controversial advances in artificial intelligence, to a packed hall of researchers and hangers-on. The publicity-shy Will is cheered on by longtime friend Max Waters (Paul Bettany), a neurobiologist who takes a more cautious approach to the implications of computer sentience.

The conference goes awry when Will is shot by a crazed member of RIFT — Revolutionary Independence from Technology — an extremist organization that will stop at nothing to halt humanity’s ever-increasing dependence on technology. This attack is coordinated with simultaneous assaults on AI think tanks across the country, including one headed by veteran computer scientist Joseph Tagger (Morgan Freeman), who mentored Will, Evelyn and Max as students back in the day, and has continued to collaborate with them.

Joseph escapes his intended fate; his research team isn’t as fortunate. And while Will’s injury seems comparatively minor, his quick slide into ill health reveals that RIFT borrowed an old KGB trick, by coating the bullet with polonium-210. Will’s death is guaranteed, and soon.

Evelyn grows frantic, determined to make the last significant leap that would build on the potentially sentient computer that Will has designed. Max helps reluctantly, more as a concerned friend, less (for the moment) as a humanist who worries about where such work could lead.

Max nonetheless stresses about the key question: Even if they somehow “find” and digitize everything in Will’s brain — every thought, every memory, every bit of knowledge — will they be able to source his soul? To what degree do our often irrational emotions determine intangibles such as character and integrity?

Filmmakers have explored this “Some things should be left to God” conundrum ever since James Whale brought Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein to the big screen in 1931 (and, arguably, even before that, with Fritz Lang’s Metropolis, in 1927). It’s a great subject for debate, and Transcendence could have remained on firm dramatic footing if Paglen’s script had gone no further.

But no. RIFT orchestrates another assault, just as Evelyn unwisely uploads the now-deceased Will’s AI consciousness to the Internet: a jaw-dropping act of idiocy that foreshadows even larger whoppers to come. With unlimited funds, thanks to AI-Will’s stock market manipulations, Evelyn settles in the dying New Mexico desert town of Brightwood. She then spends the next several years — with AI-Will’s behind-the-scenes guidance — orchestrating the construction of a massive underground data center “home” for AI-Will, powered by an equally enormous solar array that stretches as far as the eye can see.

O-kay. Reality check.

This construction process takes place without anybody noticing? Seriously? No inquisitive reporters, no concerned citizens, no suspicious politicians or law-enforcement agents? No further incursions or revelatory media campaigns by RIFT? For years?

And then, when AI-Will does show his cards, so to speak, our great nation’s response is limited to — count them — one FBI agent (Cillian Murphy) and a single military colleague (Cole Hauser) and his small squad of soldiers?

Um ... really? And never mind the lack of domestic response; what about the rest of the world?

Later still, when things truly get bad, Buchanan and Stevens apparently have the on-site authority to implement a plan that’ll change the entire world as we know it? By their lonesome widdle selves?


Driving home after enduring this cinematic disappointment, Constant Companion observed that we’ve grown much more sophisticated, as patrons of pop culture, in these early years of the 21st century. Stories need to be smarter; plots must make more sense. We’re no longer willing to tolerate glaring implausibilities, as we were in the days of infantile sci-fi melodramas such as TV’s Lost in Space.

Once into its second act, this story feels as if it had been written by an imaginative but unsophisticated 12-year-old who lacked the maturity to acknowledge real-world issues. Pfister, Paglen and their stars may present this twaddle with passionate sincerity, but that doesn’t make the nonsensical pill any easier to swallow.

Depp doesn’t establish much of a presence as Will. To a degree, this is deliberate; Will is a withdrawn scientist who prefers work to social activities. But he also has a tender side, which Depp does convey during the few early, lighter moments with Hall; Will and Evelyn deeply love each other.

Later, Depp’s quiet, somewhat emotionless voice becomes quite sinister when it starts coming from endless banks of computer screens. OK; that’s a suitably creepy touch.

Hall has the toughest challenge, since Evelyn must be believable both as a thoughtful scientist, and as a distraught, grief-stricken creature of emotional impulse. Hall walks that fine line reasonably well at first, but it becomes increasingly difficult to accept her inability to perceive the consequences of the highly dangerous Pandora’s Box she has opened.

Asking us to sympathize with a woman who’s orchestrating the end of mankind — knowingly or unknowingly — is a tall order. Ultimately, Hall can’t pull that off.

Bettany, a vastly more gifted actor with a wide emotional range, gives his character much more expressive heft. Max does understand the potential consequences, but he also is deeply devoted to his two friends; we sense more than passing fondness for Evelyn, which makes things even harder on him. Max is by far the story’s most interesting character, and Bettany does much to forestall our increasing desire to snicker and roll our eyes.

Kate Mara, a busy television presence from House of Cards and American Horror Story, is persuasive as Bree, RIFT’s ruthless leader. Freeman easily nails his role as a seasoned researcher who, quite sadly, realizes where his work has led. Clifton Collins Jr. establishes a similarly strong presence as Martin, the Brightwood construction foreman who’s first to receive AI-Will’s body-enhancing “gifts.”

In contrast, Murphy and Hauser establish no presence whatsoever as the story’s token cops. They’re one-dimensional ciphers.

Pfister’s pacing is excessively languid, the action slowing at times to a crawl. He and cinematographer Jess Hall linger obsessively on minutia, most notably s-l-o-w-l-y falling drops of water. Pfister also loves his film’s CGI effects, particularly the means by which AI-Will “repairs” its various elements. Repeatedly.

At the end of the day, for all of these high-tech concerns about God, men and machines, Pfister and Paglen’s biggest crime is boredom. This film is slow, dull and uninvolving. And because it’s so listless, we’re given even more time to contemplate — and reject — plot absurdities.

Stay behind the camera, Wally; you’ve no talent for direction. And Jack, you have no business sitting behind a keyboard.

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