The UnPopular Opinion: Transcendence
THE UNPOPULAR OPINION is an ongoing column featuring different takes on films that either the writer HATED, but that the majority of film fans LOVED, or that the writer LOVED, but that most others LOATHED. We're hoping this column will promote constructive and geek fueled discussion. Enjoy!
****SOME SPOILERS ENSUE****
One of the biggest flops of 2014 was cinematographer Wally Pfister's directorial debut TRANSCENDENCE. The science fiction drama seemed to have everything going for it from a stellar cast that included Christopher Nolan veterans like Morgan Freeman and Cillian Murphy to the box office gold that is Johnny Depp. Couple that with a chilling trailer and you had the makings of a certified hit at theaters. Instead, critics bashed TRANSCENDENCE for having a non-sensical plot, thin twists, and a non-performance from Depp. What the hell happened?
My answer is that most critics simply just overreacted. For all of the critical acclaim heaped on Christopher Nolan's INTERSTELLAR, there was an equal and opposite amount of bashing put on TRANSCENDENCE. Both films share several thematic ties regarding the survival of humanity, the power of science, and the importance of emotional endurance. Both films showcase breathtaking visuals and state of the art special effects and yet critics and audiences were totally divided on the two movies.
Come on, Steve! We're spitting on ants!
TRANSCENDENCE is fully of lofty ideas and a very high concept plot. Comparisons have been made betweeen Pfister's film and the schlocky THE LAWNMOWER MAN, but this is not a movie about virtual reality but rather artificial intelligence. But even that draws comparisons to MAX HEADROOM which this is not. TRANSCENDENCE, as the title implies, is about crossing the line between humanity and technology. TRANSCENDENCE really feels like an existential take on THE TERMINATOR but without the violence and warfare. This is a movie that transcends the typical scifi yarn and tells an adult story with adult characters that do not resort to gunfire and physical combat.
Say what you will about the plot holes in TRANSCENDENCE or the lack of intelligent decision-making by these supposedly brilliant characters. I found the story to be quite interesting and kept my attention for the duration of the film. Unlike INTERSTELLAR, this film did not aim for any adherence to science fact. This is a fantasy rooted in science but is by no means meant to be analyzed by Neil Degrasse Tyson for the possibility of becoming reality. I heard all of the criticisms before seeing TRANSCENDENCE and in the end I found that the movie was an enjoyable ride. I watched it a second time to make sure I wasn't insane and still found that all of the vitriol heaped on the movie comes from the belief that we should have expected more from this cast and crew. In reality, if Johnny Depp had not headlined this film, I think the critics may have been a little more willing to give it a chance.
Why is no one else worried that Lucius Fox and Dr. Crane are working together?
In fact, Depp was criticized for "phoning in" his role as Dr. Will Caster. Some said he was emotionless and robotic in his delivery of the character. I found that his decision to play Caster as a socially stunted individual whose only true connections to the real world were his wife and friend played by Rebecca Hall and Paul Bettany, respectively, was an inspired choice. As we see the characters argue whether Caster is less human now that he is a machine, Depp's performance avoids us gaining sympathy for the character which makes the final twist all the more profound. Some said there was no chemistry between Hall and Depp and others said Bettany's allegiance-shifting through the movie was inexplicable. You can chalk it up to suspension of disbelief, but I found both characters to fit perfectly with the overall scope and tone of the film.
What nobody questioned about TRANSCENDENCE was the sheer beauty of the film thanks to cinematographer Wally Pfister being behind the camera. The man is a genius when it comes to framing shots and some say that is where his skills should remain. Pfister's visual prowess easily puts him above many others when it comes to who deserves a shot at directing any number of films. As far as debuts go, I would rank this alongside Andrew Stanton's job on JOHN CARTER which was maligned by critical bashing and not an astute analysis of his ability as a filmmaker. Pfister deserves another shot whether you liked TRANSCENDENCE or not.
Concept art from the reboot of LABYRINTH
I have a sneaking suspicion based on the box office numbers that most of you probably didn't go see TRANSCENDENCE but instead hopped on the bandwagon when it became a punching bag upon it's release. Maybe it was high expectations that Johnny Depp would return to form or maybe it was the association with Christopher Nolan that folks were expecting something more from this cast and Wally Pfister. Whatever it was that threw people off, this movie absolutely deserves another look. If anything, I bet you will find it a lot more appealing on the small screen than you may have at the theater. This is a movie that asks for your attention but doesn't demand it. It is an easy to watch film with intelligent aspirations that doesn't require a degree in quantum mechanics to appreciate.
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