Stop All The Downloadin’: A ‘Transcendence’ Review

I suspect people might hate Transcendence, based on the disappointing and admittedly pretty sucky ending, forgetting the wild and borderline brilliant movie that came before it. This suspicion, which was already taking shape in my head as the credits rolled, was bolstered almost instantly by some of the reactions I overheard upon leaving the theater.

“Well, it was free.”

“I about fell asleep.”

“The only part I liked was the beginning.”

Am I crazy for liking it? I wondered. Then another reaction brought it all home. A publicist, standing outside the exit, as publicists do, pressed a nearby critic for his reaction. “I didn’t like it as much as I thought I was going to,” the critic said, stomping off like he was angry he’d wasted his time.

I didn’t like it as much as I thought I was going to.

This immediately produced in me a derisive snort-laugh kind of thing, that in retrospect was much too loud. It’s clearly a dick move to just laugh hatefully in another person’s face like that, but it came spewing forth from me almost involuntarily before I even had a chance to catch it.

What an awful shitty criticism of a film! I thought. But then I wondered if I was being fair. We all go into a film with expectations of some kind, even if we try not to. I guess I can’t fault him for being honest about that. Still, you’d hope that after two hours of watching a film, something about the actual film would be on your mind. Are you reviewing the film, or your own expectations of it? Are films so wrapped up in bullshit and hype that we can’t help but end up reviewing the marketing as much as the movie? Great end credits scene! Loved the synergistic tie-ins, CEO guy! Barf. And the reverse side of the coin, “I loved it! It was exactly what I expected!” is even worse.

If focus groups ruled the world, I imagine every film and television show would have some reductive, comforting message that could be boiled down into a sentence or less. LOL, so true! Especially minutes 3 and 17! The Buzzfeed listicle-izing of art. Transcendence doesn’t have that. It has a series of ideas that it plays with. It was part high art, part schlock, with a healthy dollop of both the profound and the profoundly silly. Strange, messy, and best of all, unexpected. That’s why I liked it.

In Twilight, Edward Cullen is a 100-year-old undead vampire who spends all night watching his teen girlfriend Bella Swan sleep. Because, as a vampire, he doesn’t need sleep (disproving that old adage, “I’ll sleep when I’m dead,”). Teens and lonely cat ladies, oddly, apparently found this notion romantic (to be fair, Bella Swan is about as interesting asleep as she is awake, and looks less like she has heartburn). Transcendence manages to explore the dark, unstated corollary to both Twilight and Her, that maybe it *wouldn’t* be that cool to date someone who could instantly memorize all your emails or smell when you were ovulating and whatever else. If Her was a whimsical take on “what if you could fall in love with your operating system,” Transcendence is a (deliciously) terrifying look at what it might be like to date Big Brother.

The jumping off point for Transcendence is the singularity, the idea that we’ll one day be able to upload consciousness. In the film, Johnny Depp, playing a scientist named Will Caster, explicitly rebrands this event “transcendence” at a TED Talk-like event. It’s generally thought of as mankind’s ultimate evolution, in which we conquer death by learning to transfer consciousness out of decaying organic matter and into shiny consumer products like ipods and surveillance drones and double-sided vibrators. But that’s just the rosy version, where we all get to be sentient vibrators for eternity. It doesn’t ask any of the thorny questions, like:

  • Isn’t consciousness informed by your senses? Your basic biological needs, like sleep, food, sex, etc.?
  • If you upload your consciousness into an entity with different biological needs, doesn’t that inherently change the nature of that consciousness?
  • Or, to put it in the simplest terms, if you upload you into not you, will you still be you?

For me, asking the right questions is at least half the battle for science fiction, and Transcendence asks great ones. If you’re not dealing with the nature of consciousness at some level, what’s the point? Transcendence, from long-time Christopher Nolan cinematographer Wally Pfister and writer Jack Paglen, runs wild with those questions, eventually swallowing up elements of 2001, Robocop, Cocoon, Drew Magary’s The Post Mortal, Children of the Corn, Her, and God knows what else. Johnny Depp gets uploaded into a powerful supercomputer and everything gets nuts, one idea building on the next until we’ve gone from transcendence to high-frequency trading to “neo-luddite” bioethics revolutionaries to nanobots and geoengineering. Also, Kate Mara plays one of the revolutionaries, looking all hot and stuff. Whoever cast both her and Rebecca Hall was clearly after my own… uh… heart.

I can see how it might feel like a dizzying mess, but for me that was the fun: the plot developments coming to mirror the exponential pace of advancements in computer technology. Shit moves quick when your brain is a supercomputer with infinite memory that never sleeps, eats, or wants to fuck. The fun of Transcendence is watching someone take one idea and run wild with it, in a way that you can see each decision creating this new synapse, with consequences radiating new nerve bundles in every direction – forwards and backwards in time, sideways, and everything in between. Does it get messy? Of course it does. But that’s part of the fun of it, like with clown sex.

Most movies about sentient machines or the singularity get hopelessly hung up on the question of “what is the soul” or “what is it that makes us human?” (A question McG’s idiotic Terminator movie answered with “the human heart.” Duuuuurp.) Transcendence mostly skips that unanswerable and goes straight to “what would happen if you stuck a scientist inside a super computer?”

Things get silly and wild, and a few reveals that I won’t spoil here, especially one involving Clifton Collins Jr., actually made me squeal audibly with delight. The film certainly stumbles, but not really until the very end, when it tries to resolve itself in a way that manages to be reductive, a big twist, falsely optimistic, and a cop out all at the same time. A bummer, to be sure, but a popcorn movie that seems genuinely curious and asks interesting questions about the world is rare and wonderful enough that I don’t care nearly as much about the answers. Not to mention, it was nice to see Johnny Depp playing something besides a human reaction shot machine for a change.


Vince Mancini is a writer and comedian living in San Francisco. You can find more of his work on FilmDrunk, the Uproxx network, and all over his mom’s refrigerator. Fan FilmDrunk on Facebook, find the latest movie reviews here.