Saturday, April 26, 2014

Why Transcendence Fails to Transcend

Big budget Hollywood films that fail to find an audience often offer lessons in storytelling. Transcendence is an example.

In most successful films, a main character embodies a story's promise (what the story is about) and that character experiences narrative tension around the course and outcome of the story. Transcendence violates this by starting with the aftermath of what's happened in the film with a major, but secondary character. This sets up a plot question, what happened to create the world we see in the opening scene? We then meet Johnny Depp in the present. He's a scientist working to create a singularity, an artificial, highly intelligent computer system that has the potential to evolve rapidly. But Depp is soon shot and dies, and his consciousness is uploaded into a computer. This takes 25 minutes. The action is slow and the settings mostly dark.

Main character #3 is kidnapped to force him to help shut down the new version of Depp, and he experiences narrative tension about this, but he's not the main character. These scenes run about twenty five minutes.

Eventually he's reunited with Depp's wife, who builds a massive underground compound at Depp's direction and guidance, using new technologies he's creating. A scientist friend gets into the facility and suggests to her the possibility that the A.I. is using Depp's personality to mislead her, and its real plan is to wipe out humanity and take over the world under the guise of using nano-technology to heal the crippled and end pollution. Now she experiences narrative tension. But she's not quite the main character in the film, either.

This builds to a major confrontation and some significant action (the trailer suggests this is an action film; that's not true at all). With the action, there's more tension generated about the plot about how the battle to shut down this facility/Depp will play out. To save his human wife, a newly minted Depp in a physical body allows himself to be infected with a virus she carries.

Depp and the wife he loves die together; her love has pulled on what was left of Depp to do the right thing. He dies, and since everything about his nano technology has already infected the world, everything in the world (anything connected to the internet or run from the internet) shuts down.

The film ends with main character #3 in a garden created by the human Depp that shields some of the nano technology that could rebuild the world. Will he allow the technology to rebuild the world?

The film develops a number of ideas about technology, but none are ever developed. It's also a muddle about who the main character is in the film. Depp and his A.I. version? The wife? The other scientist? It's not clear. They all have prominent roles in the story.

A film can be developed with multiple main characters. L.A. Confidential is a great example, but it's also a great example of story mechanics. Several main characters, but one story (about illusion, reality, and identity) and one plot (who's going to replace Mickey C, and what happened at the Night Owl Cafe?)

You don't find that kind of clarity in Transcendence. Big budget Hollywood films that fail to find and satisfy an audience often have flawed story mechanics, and not having a clearly defined central character is deadly. A film can be told with an ensemble that acts out the promise, it's just hard to do well and easy to do badly.

Helping an audience to transcend mundane reality is a basic goal of a good film. Having a main character the audience relates to or invests in and begins to share that character's narrative tension is a major part of how a good film helps its audience become absorbed in and share the story's journey to the fulflllment of its promise.


To read some of my longer reviews of popular movies, check out my writing workbook, A Story is a Promise, available on Amazon's Kindle and Barnes and Noble's Nook.