Despite some remarkable exceptions, Wally Pfister’s ambitious directorial debut has been plagued by worrying box office results and very bad international reviews so far. Yet, I wanted to give Transcendence a chance. So a few days ago I was sitting in a cinema in London asking myself:
a) why hipsters could not be on time for shows they had booked in advance;
b) how long I was supposed to endure my unknown seatmates chewing their apparently never ending popcorn;
c) why people kept on laughing at the film’s most dramatic scenes (given the fact that this is not a horror movie, I don’t think that the “tension relief” theory applies here).
While I will probably never get a truly convincing answer to the first question, I can say that 25 minutes is a pretty accurate reply to the second. Don’t get me wrong: I too like to eat popcorn while watching Godzilla-like movies, but Transcendence is one of those films that I nickname “blah-blaction”, meaning it takes its time, with a lot of chatting on pretentious topics before getting into some action-packed scenes.
[If you want to avoid SPOILERS I recommend you stop reading here]
I have a pretty clear idea regarding the third question: at the screening I attended, nobody cared about the characters. For most of the 2 hours I spent at Rio Cinema I had the feeling that the actors had found themselves in the same room by pure chance. In addition to that, the chemistry between them was often ruined by para-philosophical dialogues that clashed with the dramatic twists of the story. The “2 years later” flash forward didn’t really help to glue their performances either. Above all, Depp’s monotonous acting didn’t contribute to the viewers’ empathy towards his character: Dr. Will Caster was as soporific as his later digital counterpart.
Although utopian communities set in the middle of nowhere have had more inspired outcomes in a long tradition in American culture, and sentient computers better incarnations in the cyberpunk subgenre, Transcendence was really disappointing also because it ignored its expandable storytelling. It would be unfair, to say the least, to state that featuring Depp/Caster on the fake cover of Wired – as happens in the film – is light-years away from re-imagining the TED talk in the next future (remember the marketing campaign for Prometheus?), but I cannot help but note that the film is served by a really poor website which features some even poorer creative ideas to exploit the Revolutionary Independence From Technology (R.I.F.T.) subplot.
Playing with the idea of subversive/anarchist/extremist/terrorist groups plotting to promote their beliefs is an old thing for sci-fi. See for instance the Army of the Twelve Monkeys in Terry Gilliam’s Twelve Monkeys and the group of Realists in the far more disturbing eXistenZ by David Cronenberg, just to name a few (the latter, by the way, also features a virtual reality game called tranCendenZ, which is curiously assonant to Transcendence).
In terms of the digital promotional campaign for the film, the R.I.F.T. featured in Pfister’s debut would have deserved much more than a corporate Tumblr and a few grainy (and viral-wannabe) videos on YouTube:
So, at the risk of sounding cheeky, maybe it isn’t by chance that, according to Wikipedia, Jack Paglen’s screenplay was among the titles featured in the so-called “Black List, a set of popular but unproduced screenplays in Hollywood”, before being used by Pfister.