As you’ve probably noticed, you shouldn’t read my posts until you’ve watched the movie. For one, they don’t make much sense until you have. And two, they shape the way you watch the movie. I’d rather have the discussion with you after you’ve watched it than influence your expectations.
But if you weren’t planning on watching it, hopefully my thoughts will either persuade or dissuade.
Transcendence was an action thriller that wanted to be a scifi film that should have been a love story.
I figured there would be action. Wally Pfister, the director, evolved into the incredible DP he is while working with Christopher Nolan, director of the recent Batman trilogy, Inception, The Prestige. I knew there was a love story. Every Nolan film has one, usually with a troubled man unable to get the love he wants. Plus the trailer told us there was to be one. But what I was looking forward to was the science fiction.
Science fiction changes with the times. Look at this incredible graphic and compare history with scifi it records.
To hit a few major points: When Hitler was around, we feared controlling governments. When the atomic bomb was invented, we feared the wasteland. When we went to space, war moved into the stars. And now that technology has become an inseparable part of our lives, we talk about singularity, or transcendence.
I went into this film, Transcendence, excited for that. I was introduced to the topic in a Time article. It blew me away. I had already been working on a script that mildly involved a similar theme, but this article showed me how much more was possible than I’d ever imagined. I sought out more and more. I watched Her immediately and as soon as I learned Robot & Frank existed, I hit play, not even putting it on my Netflix queue but just immediately hitting play. I rarely read contemporary fiction but I devoured Dave Eggers’s The Circle. For the longest time, I had felt that history showed progress, that the difference between man and animal was that we could build on the previous generations and that made us better. But singularity made me doubt that.
What if we were working toward a point that wiped us out? When I heard the term singularity, I thought of a black hole. A single point with infinite density from which nothing can escape and in which nothing can exist; all is one and all is nothing. Were we progressing, transcending from our humanly selves into a black hole, into nothing? My theory was very much influenced by my favorite movie, The Matrix.
Human beings are a disease, a cancer of this planet. You are a plague, and we… are the cure.
To a computer that can create better versions of itself, that can direct its own evolution, we are simply an imperfection that should be eradicated. From watching a film like Her, I realized that isn’t necessarily true. A computer might not care that we exist but simply enter into its own realm of post-life.
And so what excited me about the film Transcendence was seeing what its take would be. Would it postulate that computers would delete us? Would it be more hopeful and think that they will simply leave us?
It took the simplest, Hollywoodized answer of all: they love us.
In all honesty, I didn’t get the ending. Transcendent Will (Johnny Depp) kills himself because he can’t save the love that saved him, but that is okay because he has saved the planet, not the humans on it, but the planet itself. If he can evolve the planet in the span of two years, and if he truly loves her, why doesn’t he rush her inside and take ten minutes saving her? Instead, he waits, and talks to her, and shows her he is capable of love, then he realizes, oh no more time to save her! It had the same problem that alien movies have. If aliens can figure out all that they do, in order to travel here and what not, then why is it that the bacteria on earth, or a well-directed kamikaze plane, can destroy them? The film talks of logic and almost has some, until the conclusion, when the science no longer matters because they want to make us cry: it is him! He’s alive! He still loves you!
Sorry Hollywood, I’m not crying.
Surprisingly however, I am interested. If the opening scene, instead of giving away the ending, had showed Will and Evelyn (Rebecca Hall) falling in love, I might have bought the end. But it just took me too long to realize it was a love story. She does save him out of love, but they talk about too much science at the beginning to make you feel like that is what it is about.
In the end, I’m left wishing the film hadn’t talked so much science but had instead explored the love story more. It tried too. She has dreams of making love that turn into nightmares as she reveals he isn’t human. They tried to have dinner together with Will faking the sounds of eating to make her more comfortable. Will approached her with a surrogate body but she couldn’t accept it. The problem is that all these scenes were just underdeveloped versions of what I saw in Her.
I don’t want another Her. I want something new. And Transcendence just didn’t deliver it. While that may be partly Pfister’s fault, I think the problem was the writing.
I think the cure would have been to make a more realistic scifi film (with the amount of logic in Her, The Matrix, or a Shane Carruth film). In other words, it needed more research. But it should have been a scifi film that realized it was actually a love story. It wanted to be that, but the filmmakers hid that from us, got too caught up in the action.
Will asks Evelyn if she still loves him near the end of the film. That is when I realized what the film should have been about. It should have focused more on her and less on the hundred other characters in the film. It should have just been about her asking Will back: do you still love me? (Which she doesn’t ask but should have, at least to herself, much earlier on.)
Can a human transcend or can we just make computers smarter than us? Can a human be uploaded?
I applaud the film for making me ask that question, but I wish it had spent some time discussing it. I’d gladly have sacrificed all the gun fire and running for the sake of that question.