It’s already one of 2014’s biggest flops, but has Wally Pfister’s Transcendence just been misunderstood?
Transcendence marks the directorial debut of Christopher Nolan’s cinematographer, Wally Pfister, and by association this film had high expectations. The solid filmmaking talent of Nolan, with his intricate and intelligent storytelling for otherwise bombastic summer blockbusters, made audiences believe Transcendence was to be another philosophically and intellectually challenging movie. When released, it received a staggeringly poor 18% on Rotten Tomatoes and it now appears to be a box office flop, grossing only $54 million on a $100 million budget since its release mid-April.
Suspending one’s own disbelief can be difficult, but other great sci-fi films have had just as ludicrous premises as Transcendence
What made this film such a horrifying experience? Considering that Spike Lee’s Oldboy remake received an astounding 42% on Rotten Tomatoes, Transcendence should be a stinker. But Transcendence is actually what sci-fi cinema should really be about. Transcendence follows Dr Will Caster (Johnny Depp), who has invented a sentient computer capable of independent thought. A terrorist organisation opposes this after Will announces that man has always wanted to become God. Will is consequently shot, and thanks to wife and fellow scientist Evelyn (Rebecca Hall), his consciousness is uploaded to a machine that is ever-expanding to greater heights i.e. Transcendence.
A machine that has independent thought has been explored in sillier movies like Weird Science, I, Robot and The Lawnmower Man, but unlike these Transcendence fuses such an idea with Christian doctrine and social issues – in this film’s case, it’s the over-reliance of the internet and social media. Now, it is understandable that suspending one’s own disbelief can be difficult, but it’s important to note that not only is Transcendence’s intent to bring forward ideas more than realism, but other great sci-fi films have had just as ludicrous premises.
Logan’s Run: a society run by the under-30s. They live a carefree lifestyle, but once the inhabitants hit are 30, they are to be reincarnated. How did this get off the ground? How willing were they to accept this life of pure self-indulgence? Philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer contended ‘Life without pain has no meaning’, which is reflected in another great sci-fi, The Matrix.
Some great sci-fi movies, like Logan’s Run and Soylent Green, aim for ideas rather than logic. Transcendence is no different
Then there’s Soylent Green: Detective Robert Thorn (Charlton Heston) investigates the origins of Soylent Green, a highly abundant food source used to tackle the overpopulated and vastly unemployed human race. Along his journey, he discovers that Soylent Green is people. The factory that makes Soylent Green is populated with dozens, if not hundreds of employees, so how has this maintained its secrecy? How did governing bodies manage to make this a global food product? Surely when the populace discovered they’ve unwittingly committed cannibalism, there’d be uproar?
Inception: Dom (Leonardo DiCaprio) works as part of a unit of ‘extractors’, who perform corporate espionage by extracting information from people’s dreams. On one assignment they are to perform an act of inception on a client – planting an idea into a client’s subconscious to make them want to delve out the information. The mind is lucid and all interconnected, with dreams behaving moreso with an incoherent series of scenarios that bear little resemblance to before and after images, as consciousness and thought lacks linearity. So how does this machine work?
These sci-fi films are tremendously flawed in their premises, but are aiming for ideas rather than logic. Logan’s Run and Soylent Green are similar in exploring the dangers of overpopulation. Inception is similar to The Matrix with its themes use of philosophy and consciousness. Transcendence fuses both allegorical messages and philosophical/religious themes.
Hear us discuss Transcendence: It’s the Screen Robot Filmcast
Another major concern critics appear to have with Transcendence is the plot holes. Yes, they are gargantuan, but other great films have major plot holes. For example, Citizen Kane’s “Rosebud” line uttered by the dying titular character at the beginning of the film is whispered in a vacant room. Who recorded that message? How did anyone ascertain this? That line provides the main narrative drive of the entire movie. Plot holes are found in the majority of cinema and for that to be a source of complaint is, for me, ludicrous.
Transcendence has big ideas which challenge its audience. It doesn’t shy from ideas of what really motivates humanity
Transcendence has big ideas which challenge its audience. It doesn’t shy from social themes of environmentalism, poverty and disease, and these aren’t confronted in a sensationalist manner, but as ideas of what really motivates humanity. Are people terrified of change? Are synthetic materials a sufficient replacement for the organic? Does the film say it is OK to artificially destroy the planet, but to artificially save it might produce controversy? Does the film advocate technophobia?
Narratively, Transcendence may remind some of the now revised Starship Troopers – a film that follows a group of characters, only to discover that they may be in the wrong and the antagonist may be in the right; because of this, I will stand by this film. It is the best Hollywood blockbuster of the moment, challenging its audience on interesting issues.
More on film: The sad state of modern science fiction
Featured image: Summit Entertainment
Inset images: United Artists; Summit Entertainment