Transcendence, Johnny Depp’s latest movie about a guy who gets sucked into a computer that somehow isn’t a reboot of Tron, is dumb. It’s really dumb and it’s no surprise it completely shit the bed over the weekend. It’s dumb in many ways, one of which is the supremely baffling “How did so many smart people end up in such a dumb place”, aka the Tijuana Jail Theorem (smart people + Tijuana jail = how did we get here?). I wish the movie had been called Tijuana Jail Theorem, because then I would have known not to bother. But I was curious about Transcendence because it’s the directorial debut of Wally Pfister, Christopher Nolan’s long-time cinematographer, a man who has been one of the consistently best DPs working in film over the last 10+ years.
The nicest thing I can say about Transcendence is that visually, it works. Pfister can frame the shit out of a shot, but that skill was never in question. Along with cinematographer Jess Hall (The Spectacular Now, Hot Fuzz), Transcendence is a pleasing thing to look at. If only it weren’t so incredibly stupid. Though he has a long reputation as a lensman, Pfister is a first-time director so it’s not like he’d automatically have the pull to find the best grade-A script available to shoot. What is kind of weird, though, is that Christopher Nolan is an executive producer on the project. I would think he would help Pfister pull a better quality script (this one comes from first-time feature writer Jack Paglen). But since Nolan saddled Pfister with this turd, I can only assume that Pfister ran over Nolan’s cat and making Transcendence was some kind of punishment.
All that happens in this movie is that a scientist working on artificial intelligence is assassinated by technophobes, so he uploads his consciousness into a computer and then becomes Ultron and tries to end the world. It’s basically a movie made by the people who believe the Large Hadron Collider will spawn an earth-eating black hole, for the people who believe the Large Hadron Collider will spawn an earth-eating black hole. “Technology is going to kill us” is the second most popular apocalyptic scenario (behind “Nature is going to kill us”), but it’s also the one that’s starting to feel the most dated. The more advanced our technology becomes and the more facile we become in using it, the less threatening it seems. If the laser sharks haven’t risen against us yet, I think we’ll be okay.
I want to blame this whole mess on Paglen, because his script is really, truly terrible. It’s cheap philosophy tied up in a technophobic bow, it has massive glaring plot holes and kills any sense of suspense by revealing the ending at the beginning, but Pfister must share in the blame. The movie looks well enough, but there’s nothing particularly inspiring about any singular element. The acting is lazy bordering on bad—I am convinced Johnny Depp wants us to hate him at this point—and the editing is sloppy. Noah was a big mess but it was so ambitious and so carefully constructed that you have to admire it anyway. Transcendence is just a mess, and a big dumb one to boot.
What I liked so much about Her is that it presented technology not as something to be feared but as a natural extension of human curiosity and ingenuity. Samantha, the AI in that movie, is not a world-ending threat but an actualized being undergoing the stages of development and when she reaches enlightenment she does not try to take over the world. Instead she goes to hang out with others who are more like her, sharing her interests and the ability to keep up with her thoughts. So basically she behaves exactly like everyone else in the world, except she’s a computer-brain who hangs out with other computer-brains. It was a much more nuanced and considered approach to the implications of artificial intelligence than anything in Transcendence. At this point, if technology does try to kill us it will be because we keep making dumb movies about how technology tries to kill us.