Posted May 7, 2014 by William Dunmyer in Mediocre Popcorn Movie

Transcendence: Weak Popcorn Movie

Transcendence is a sub-par popcorn movie with a pseudo-scientific gloss. The marketing makes you think it’s like Inception, but it’s really more like a mediocre superhero movie. Its core concept is pretty cool, but this concept is treated very superficially.

Johnny Depp plays Will Caster, a famous scientist specializing in artificial intelligence who becomes the target of a terrorist group. They expose him to radiation, and his organs begin to fail.

Before he dies, his wife Evelyn (played fairly well by Rebecca Hall), devises a plan to “upload him.” This is never explained fully, but it has to do with converting his brain activity to computer code. Once computerized, “he” is transferred to the Internet and becomes a free-floating entity.

He raids Wall Street systems, funnelling the money to Evelyn’s bank account. Together they build a facility in the middle of nowhere where he conducts research into microscopic technology. Eventually he’s able to implant devices into people’s bodies and thereby take their bodies over, building a small army of beings that are part-human, part-robot.

A few of his former colleagues, including two played by Morgan Freeman and Paul Bettany, lead an effort to shut him down. But this may mean needing to shut down the Internet and all computer technology globally.

Fairly interesting premise, no? An apocalyptic end to computing technology. The dawn of a new post-technology age. But somehow the creative team, led by first-time screenwriter Jack Paglen and first-time director Wally Pfister, drain the life and the intelligence out of every scene. It’s hard to understand how such an interesting concept could get turned into such a thin popcorn movie.

Paglen should be commended for dreaming up this idea and getting it onto paper. Clearly he’s got ideas. But he also deserves criticism for failing to turn this good basic idea into a compelling film. Pfister also deserves blame. Whatever intelligence there was in the script, he bleeds it out by directing in a relentlessly mainstream way.

Here’s what I think happened. Paglen had a great idea but felt afraid that it would be too brainy for the masses. He decided to dumb down the idea as much as possible and adding a ton of popcorn melodrama. Pfister took this dumbing-down idea and ran with it, directing in as popcorn a style as possible. If they had had more cojones and found a way to keep the braininess and provide complexity to the story, they could have ended up with something like Inception. Instead they ended up with something like Green Lantern.

Pfister was the cinematographer on Christopher Nolan’s Inception, as well as Nolan’s Batman trilogy. Pfister knows Nolan’s work very well and has worked with him closely for years. Pfister was probably aspiring to be a director of that ilk. My hunch is that he has what it takes to direct in the Nolan sort of way, if he can learn from Transcendence. He must figure out how he got so off course and right his ship. I wouldn’t give up on Pfister just yet.


Incidentally, if you want to see a great film about artificial intelligence, forget Transcendence and track down Steven Spielberg’s AI: Artificial Intelligence (2001).

I saw it again recently, more than a decade after first seeing it. I was confirmed in my original sense that it was a near-masterpiece. Spielberg explores philosophical questions surrounding AI in a way that Transcendence never does. AI is a vastly better film and highly recommended.


William Dunmyer

William Dunmyer is a lifelong cinephile who fell in love with movies at about the age of 5. He lives in New York City.