Transcendence (2014)

(Video on Demand, July 2014) Even as science fiction concepts make their way to the mainstream, I remain more and more convinced that there is a fundamental difference between the mindset that gravitates toward cord SF and the rest of the population. And here’s Transcendance to make the case, as it plays with heady concepts while reassuring audiences that technology is inherently evil. Sort-of updating the moral virtual panic of The Lawnmover Man for a new generation, Transcendence once again shows an uploaded mind turning evil: SF as an excuse for horror, and a film in which characters gravely say “we fear what we don’t understand”… before doing exactly that. The technical errors abound in this film, which is almost a relief given the silliness of the entire script (“hey, let’s set up a consciousness upload laboratory in an abandoned high-school gym”). There’s a lot to dislike in the structure of the film that spoils much of the ending early on, while the rest of the script doesn’t quite seem to understand where it’s going besides an apocalyptic conclusion. (The ending can sustain a multiplicity of interpretations, the most charitable being that our two lead characters are still working quietly at changing the world.) Director Wally Pfister has a good eye for ponderous images, but he’s really not as sure-footed during the action sequences, which play out as fairly silly on-screen. Johnny Depp once again plays Johnny Depp, but the film’s tight-lipped seriousness undercuts the eccentricity that is his biggest strengths as an actor. Meanwhile, as much as I like Rebecca Hall (to the point of watching nearly everything she’s been doing lately), she is definitely underused in this film, her usual brainy character being neutered into nothing much more than the damsel-in-distress. There’s also something strange about Morgan Freeman being in the film, but in a nearly-useless role. Other flaws abound, from the herky-jerky nature of technological innovation to risible terrorist antagonists to a climax that looks amazingly cheap considering the scope of the film so far. Transcendence is the kind of maddening film that holds a strong set of ideas, but can’t be bothered to actually do anything interesting with them… or take the leap forward that technological innovations can actually be, you know, beneficial without anyone turning into a creepy omniscient god-monster. I suspect that being a fairly knowledgeable SF reader is tainting my impression of Transcendence in ways that may not occur to the average moviegoer, but such is the baggage that I bring to the film.

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