I am a big fan of Christopher Nolan. Inception stands as one of my favorite films. The Prestige is a favorite thriller of mine. The innovative storytelling in Memento is inspiring. Oh yes, and he also did a fine job in adapting Batman for the big screen. What do all of those projects have in common? Wally Phister.
As Nolan's visual style has evolved, Phister's work has really shined in the cinematography of his films. Its clear that the two make a great team. Transcendence marks Wally Phister's directorial debut. The film: A pre-Summer movie about artificial intelligence and the human mind. I have a soft-spot for science fiction with interesting "what if" scenarios (see Looper). This led Transcendence to be one of my most-anticipated films of 2014.
Warning: The following is a spoiler-filled post about Transcendence. If you haven't seen it, make like a tree and get out of here.
Unfortunately, the bad press for Transcendence made it to my ears before I was able to see it. I hate bracing myself for a turkey, but I still wanted it to be good. I still found plenty to like, but it was quite frustrating. Between the way the film is written, or the way it was structured, I found too many things to bug me along the way.
Maybe its just me, but it seems that Transcendence misunderstood its audience. The audience that should have been drawn to this movie the most should have consisted of the nerds and geeks that spend much of their time online, follow tech, and are fascinated by science behind the concept. Unfortunately, this movie seems to forget that audience. Transcendence fears the technology, and seemingly doesn’t want you to think too hard about it. There are just too many questions that are not addressed. If Will (Johnny Depp) is all over the internet, how does he not know that the government is plotting against him? Why is he completely defenseless against a single virus? Why was someone allowed to equate the loss of a century of technology with Y2K?
Someone should have pointed out that people afraid of technology weren't going to rush out and see this movie. I wasn't interested in watching technology lead to the downfall of civilization as we know it; I wanted to see an intelligent exploration of what would happen in this scenario.
There are just so many things that did not make sense. I really had trouble getting my bearings on how time passes on this film. Did Will leave the hospital with a gunshot wound the same day? How long did it take for everything to escalate in the desert? I really couldn't tell. I don't understand why characters made the choices they did. Why did Will accept the virus? Why did Max (Paul Bettany) decide to help the extremists?
There’s still come neat moments for sci-fi fans to enjoy, and the movie looks great. Its clear that a man who see through a camera directed this. Every scene is set in a location that looks interesting and/or is well lit. If we aren;t in the desert, we look through multiple layers of glass. Scenes have layers of visuals to observe. I’m not sure why everyone preferred to meet in abandoned buildings, but they sure looked neat. The movie looks good, and I have no qualms with the acting. It is just spoiled by a bad story.
The structure of the story may have been a smart way to best tell this tale, but seemed less than ideal for me. We open with a shot of Max (Paul Bettany) walking around in a world that uses Thinkpads for doorstops. As Max explains that technology is dead, he visits Will's abandoned sanctuary. In retrospect, I can see how starting the movie this way conveys that the real story is not the global disaster, but instead a love story with some interesting philosophical questions. Starting the movie this way sets up the ending, including a final shot of a puddle of nanobots. The code of Will and Evelyn is together and at peace. We are meant to enjoy that the two are still together in the protected sanctuary. The code survives.
Except, it doesn't.
I want to be believe that the story works out that way, but it just can't. The movie doesn't work for me as a love story. First, Transcendence rushes us through the setup. Perhaps a little too much ground needs to be covered as Morgan Freeman (developing a habit of arriving as "Exposition Man") explains how a coordinated terrorist strike has set the artificial intelligence research back a decade or so. Will finds out he is dying pretty quickly. In the meantime, I personally didn't connect with the couple as the core of the story. I didn't feel Evelyn's (Rebecca Hall) pain as he died. That may be my problem, but I found it to be a light foundation.
Fast forward to the end. The two end up together, right? Wrong. They don't. Transcendence refuses to follow its own rules. Evelyn is the only person Will cares about. He somehow cares about her enough to upload her, even through he knows she has a virus embedded in her that will kill him. We watch as everything connected to Will dies, everything expect to the puddle of raindrops on the sanitary. We are led to believe the two are still together at some level. This simply cannot work. Either the code "died" in the raindrop before it fell, or the puddle was shielded by the copper mesh and the code is still alive. If the puddle was shielded, and the virus never fell via rain, then the virus/Evelyn never reached it. Evelyn is the virus. She is Will's death. There isn't a happy ending where those two live on. If anything is alive in that puddle, its just Will.
Wait.. thats it! We can fix Transcendence in the sequel. Hear me out. Max finds Will's code in the sanctuary and uses it to rebuild the internet. Will, our crafty villain, was just biding his time, waiting until the world welcomed his genius. He want's them to think that he has changed, that Evelyn's code is there and leading to a friendlier version of what we saw in the original. Then he strikes at a global scale. Surely, I can write this.
Sadly, I think Transcendence is performing so poorly at the box office that I will never get a chance to pitch my idea for the sequel.
If my comments seem confusing and a bit dark, then it fits the film well. I think there are some good nuggets of Sci-Fi in Transcendence, they are just surrounded by so much that doesn't work. The movie has so many good ingredients, but the story isn't told very well. I'm still rooting for you, Wally. Here's hoping that the next movie has a stronger script.