The dual-review film criticism site: first a spoiler-free review, then an in-depth Alternate Take.

Written by Matt Denny.

Photo from the article In my short review of Transcendence, I expend a substantial number of words struggling with whether my perception of the film as dull is evidence of a fault on my part or on the part of the film. In particular I muse on whether my boredom arose from a misidentification of the type of film Transcendence strives to be. Rather than being the sci-fi action blockbuster spectacular I’d convinced myself to expect, maybe Transcendence was actually something more contemplative, more “talky”? Before setting out to write this alternate take, I took another look at the film’s trailer in order to get some indication of how the film had been promoted. Of course a trailer isn’t always a reliable guide as to what a film is actually like - a cynic would no doubt remind me that the purpose of a trailer is to get the maximum number of bodies into the cinema and spending their money. As such, it’s conceivable that a rather slow film might be “disguised” as a more conventional action-packed extravaganza. However, what I’m interested in is how the film is packaged, how it is presented. Yes, a trailer is essentially an advert but it is also an important paratext, acting as a gateway to the film and framing audience expectation. Ideally a film’s promotional paratexts will give a firm indication of a film’s type, and therefore suggest the appropriate way the film should be received, appreciated, and enjoyed.

Rewatching the Transcendence trailer, I feel slightly vindicated. The trailer shows Will Caster (Johnny Depp) being shot, introduces the anti-technology activist group RIFT, and has Joseph Tagger (Morgan Freeman) and Max Waters (Paul Bettany) delivering stern warnings about the dangers of artificial intelligence. The tempo of the trailer steadily builds as a Zimmer-esque soundtrack bwarms ominously to underscore each cut. The dialogue and pacing of the trailer suggests a conspiracy thriller, a race against time and some ill-defined enemy. The trailer also manages to condense almost every action scene from the film into its short runtime. With fast cuts and increasing scenes of action, the trailer builds to a crescendo suggesting a similar climatic conclusion to the film. It’s a pretty enjoyable trailer actually, but it certainly presents Transcendence as far more action-centric than the finished film.

The trailer suggests that my preconceptions regarding the film weren’t totally unfounded, but neither was it the only paratext framing my expectation. These secondary paratexts are however less … let’s say “legitimate” … than the trailer and other promotional material. They may also be less widely applicable. For better or worse, the films of Christopher Nolan functioned for me as an inescapable paratext to Transcendence. The most concrete reason for this is director Wally Pfister’s strong association with Nolan, acting as cinematographer on all of Nolan’s films apart from The Following and Interstellar. It’s perhaps foolish to expect Pfister’s directorial work to have any relation to Nolan’s other than appearance (perhaps as foolish as arguing that Ron Howard, Danny Boyle, and Lars von Trier are similar because they’ve all worked with Anthony Dod Mantle). I’d argue that there is something meaningful in the combination of Pfister’s association with Nolan and Transcendence’s promotion as thrilling action blockbuster. For me at least, it undeniably conjures up the rhetoric of the “intelligent blockbuster” surrounding Nolan’s films. Looking back, this what I expected Transcendence to be and I don’t think I was unreasonable in doing so.

<i>Inception</i>: So complex you have to watch it twice?
Inception: So complex you have to watch it twice?
The concept of the intelligent blockbuster is a thorny one. On the one hand I’m all for it, I’m always arguing in favour of intelligent blockbusters. Get me started on the subject, and nothing short of physical restraint will stop me singing the praises of The Lone Ranger or Edge of Tomorrow. The problem is that when people talk about intelligent blockbusters, these aren’t the films that usually come up in conversation. Inevitably, its The Dark Knight or Inception that are held up as the epitome of The Intelligent BlockbusterTM (although I think the new Planet of the Apes films might be gaining some ground). Nolan’s films are discussed using such sacralising phrases as Complex, Gritty, and Serious. When promoting Inception, DiCaprio urged audiences to see the film twice to fully appreciate its complexities. I personally love Nolan’s films (especially The Prestige, which I still consider to be his finest work) but I find the Cult of Complexity that has arisen around him baffling. For me Nolan is remarkable not for producing esoteric and labyrinthine but because his films are remarkably legible. There’s hardly space to get in to my views on Nolan and Nolan fandom here, and to do so would deviate even further from the point in hand. The key point to bear in mind is that the Intelligent Blockbuster as exemplified by Nolan is characterised by its Seriousness and its Complexity (to which we might add a certain po-faced ponderousness).

The Transcendence trailer clearly encourages perception of the film as an action film or rather as the sort of admixture of science fiction, thriller, and action which appears to be the dominant mode in this age of the superhero film. The association with Nolan adds nuance to classification, reassuring the viewer that this film will be a Serious and Complex intelligent blockbuster in addition to being an action film. These then, were my expectations, and in many respects, Transcendence does match up with these criteria, and yet it misses out on the crucial but unspoken requirement for an Intelligent BlockbusterTM to still operate according to the established conventions of blockbuster cinema. In short, Transcendence fails to be exciting. The foregrounding of action in the trailer compounds this gap between expectation and actuality. Whilst the film does certainly have action scenes, scenes of conflict, and even a scene in which an apparently superpowered nanotech-zombie is able to leap THREE RUNGS UP A LADDER, these set pieces aren’t integral to the fabric of the film in the way that they would be in an action film. Consider for a moment how action functions in Top Gun, how we learn absolutely everything we need to know about Maverick when we first see him fly. More than this, the experience of speed and flight are so essential to an understanding of the film, to understanding what feeling “the need for speed” actually means in terms of this ultra-competitive, hyper-masculine environment. This is not how action functions in Transcendence. The perceptive reader will no doubt have noticed the subtle note of exasperation in my description of the scene in which an apparently superhuman antagonist is revealed to have staggeringly mundane abilities. This moment is so frustrating for me because rather than action serving to carry the substance of the film, it runs completely counter to it. Rather than instilling appropriate fear and awe in Caster the Great and Powerful and his cyborg minions, it undermines the perception of these iZombies as a palpable threat.

Viewed as a blockbuster, even as a so-called Intelligent Blockbuster, Transcendence is sadly lacking. This is a great shame, because the film has much to offer in terms of idea and atmosphere that the framework of the intelligent blockbuster just doesn’t allow for. For this reason, we might consider a better, alternative framework from which to view the film. I mentioned in my review that Transcendence might best be appreciated a sort of technological ghost story. The ghost story seems particularly appropriate as it foregrounds the elements of the film I think are most effective: the exploration inhuman Otherness and the depiction of grief. This also grounds the film in the character of Evelyn (Rebecca Hall), and her changing perception of the entity which claims to be her husband. This shift in focus also grants centrality to Rebecca Hall’s performance, which is certainly the strongest aspect of Transcendence.

Rather than the conspiracy thriller suggested by the trailer, Transcendence as ghost story becomes a narrative of grief and mourning. In a desperate attempt to save her dying husband, Evelyn uses her expertise in the field of A.I. to transfer his consciousness into a machine. This is nothing short of technological necromancy. Technology may have replaced magic and consciousness may stand in for spirit, but what is a ghost but the continuation of some non-bodily quality of a person after the mere bodily shell has crumbled? When the computer shows signs of life, Evelyn is immediately convinced its Will. Like someone contact a medium after a bereavement, Evelyn’s willingness to believe, her need to believe, leaps immediately to conclusion that her husband is somehow contacting her from the beyond. Max is more sceptical, but there is more at stake here than protecting his friend from con-artists and table-rappers. In this ghost story the question isn’t between whether ghosts are truth or fiction, but whether they are benign or benevolent, whether this is Will or merely something claiming to be Will for its own nefarious ends. This is a position I have great sympathy with, as I feel that all too often those conducting séances (such as in the “purely for entertainment purposes” ghost-hunting series Most Haunted) assume they are contacting something that is both benevolent and human (or at least previously human). The depiction of artificial intelligence in Transcendence gestures to a pantheon of non-corporeal beings, from tragic ghosts to malevolent demons and even vengeful gods. The film uses these traditional depictions of the other-than-human to engage metaphorically with the other-than-humanness of artificial intelligence.

Even as “Will” grows more powerful and sinister, Evelyn remains within the haunted castle of the research facility. Even if this entity really is Will, it becomes clear that, beyond death and the confines of the body, he is no longer exactly the Will she knew and loved. Transcendence engages with old sci-fi saw of what is human. In particular, the film points to the absurdity of asking an A.I. to prove self-awareness when we as humans cannot do so. This obviously extends to the question of how one proves they are human, the central issue at stake for Evelyn regarding the post-transcendence Will. The question of whether the A.I. entity claiming to be Will truly is a some sort of cyber-revenant or merely a computer claiming to be Will isn’t an abstract intellectual opposition, it is messy and murky and fraught with emotion. Has Evelyn found a way for love to transcend death? Or is a callous A.I. manipulating a grieving woman to protect against being switched off? Transcendence doesn’t offer an easy answer. In its final moments, the entity known as Will admits that it doesn’t know whether it really is Will, or a computer that thinks that thinks its Will. This raises the radical possibility that what makes one self-aware - that is, aware of Self - is doubting that Self. On the flipside, it also suggests that what makes us human is our capacity to believe that we are.

The film ends with the possibility of eternal life, but in a form that unlike the ghost does not represent an overturning of the natural order. Max returns to Evelyn and Will’s home, and notices sunflowers in bloom. Water drops the flower and cleanses a puddle of oily water. This suggests that some of the nanobots have survived (thanks to the Faraday cage in the Caster’s garden), and the Evelyn and Will live on together, not as ghosts but at a molecular level, as part of the very fabric of the universe. It’s a quietly beautiful ending, and one that is far more fulfilling when seen as the conclusion to a film about love, grief, death, and the human desire to transcend our mortal limitations.

This Alternate Take was published on February 12, 2015.

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