Genre: Sci-fi
Premise: A love story set in a time where a dying scientist is able to upload his consciousness into the internet and, facing its global implications, must fight against the forces who are actively working against the existence of a singularity.
About: Transcendence is one of the few spec scripts that made it to the big screen this year, and a popular one with script readers, including myself. It was Wally Pfister’s directorial debut. Pfister, Christopher Nolan’s long-time cinematographer, was blessed with a strong cast that included Johnny Depp, Rebecca Hall, Morgan Freeman, Cillian Murphy, Kate Mara and Paul Bettany. Despite what looked to be a surefire hit, the film was botched in just about every manner. Critics blasted it (it got a 20% on Rotten Tomatoes) and audiences didn’t come to see it (it made 11 million bucks over the weekend). So today, the question is, why? What happened? Where did things go wrong? I’d like to find out.
Writer: Jack Paglen
Details: 120 minutes/131 pages

hr_Transcendence_3

Transcendence just made every single one of your jobs as writers a thousand times harder.

You may not know this, but every time a spec-script-turned-film bombs at the box office, it hurts you. Because the studios log that away and say “Yet another reason not to make spec scripts.”  Which makes it harder for you, my dear writer friend, to sell a screenplay.  I mean, first Draft Day bombs and now this??  We’re not exactly making a strong counter-case here.

The thing is, this should’ve worked.  If ever there was a spec that felt right being turned into a movie, it was this one.  It had an interesting role for a lead to play, a marketable premise, some intriguing new themes our interconnected planet is dealing with and some inventive set pieces.  Black List voters jumped on board.  And pretty much everyone I talked to liked the script.  So then what went wrong?

For those who don’t know much about the film, here’s an abbreviated plot breakdown:

40-something Will Caster is one of a handful of scientists across the world who is making strides in artificial intelligence. His goal is to reach the “Singularity,” a nerdy term for when computers become as smart as humans. From there, it’s assumed, computers will become exponentially smarter than humans, to the point where they may want to get rid of us.

Which is exactly why a renegade group out there known as the “RIFT” is trying to assassinate Will and others like him. To “save the world.” They do end up shooting Will but not killing him. However, just when he thinks he’s in the clear, Will learns that the bullet was laced with uranium. Will will be dead in weeks from radiation poisoning.

Will’s wife Evelyn, who loves him more than anything, comes up with this wacky idea to use Will’s own research to save him, uploading his brain into a computer. With the help of Will’s reluctant best friend, Max, they’re able to pull this off just before the RIFT find them.

With the entire internet at his hands, Will becomes really powerful, and starts building a super town out in the middle of the desert. While at first Evelyn was excited to have her man back, now she’s kinda freaked out. Will monitors her 24/7, and she’s starting to feel like a kept woman. RIFT joins up with a small department in the FBI to try and take Will and his new city down, but it looks like it’s going to be too little, too late.

Transcendence-image-transcendence-36789309-600-421“So let me get this straight Mr. Pfister. You want me to look bored the entire movie?”

The first thing I realized about the screen translation of Transcendence was that two of my favorite things about the script were gone. First, Pfister decided to nix the love-triangle between Max, Will, and Evelyn, which was a strange choice. Max’s inner struggle about whether to help Evelyn save her husband even though he secretly loved her, was one of the only aspects of the script that added any layers to the scenes. Without that, everything pretty much played out on the surface.

Then there was the compete lack of any set pieces. In the script, we get this super battle with Will’s self-made super-soldiers (which he creates via nano technology) throwing tanks and doing all these impossible things. In the movie, these “super nano humans” never engaged in any physical attacks. It was beyond bizarre. We built up to three major battle scenes, but nothing actually happened! Right as the nano-soldiers were about to unleash their awesomeness, they’d just… stop.

Now, obviously this could have been due to budgetary reasons. But I suspect it might have actually been a choice. In the script (major spoiler) we find out at the end that, despite RIFT’s insistence otherwise, Will wasn’t trying to rule the world. He was trying to help Evelyn “change the world.”  In other words, Will was never bad.  He was good! In order for this “shocking” twist to work, I’m guessing our director thought, “Well then Will can’t actually kill anybody! He’s a good guy.” “Aha,” he continued. “That means we can’t have those casualty-heavy set pieces anymore.”

This was a terrible choice, and a trap many writers fall into. In order to make one small aspect of their script work, they sacrifice other bigger parts of the script. In this case, we lost out on these cool set pieces for a lame twist that didn’t make all that much sense anyway.

But the truth is, I don’t think either of these were the reason Transcendence sucked. If you inserted those changes into the movie right now, it would’ve been only marginally better (maybe 35% Rotten Tomatoes instead of 20%). The reason this movie sucked was mainly due to something writers have zero control over: bad directing.

This film was botched on the directing end pretty much from the very first frame, when we get an absolutely unnecessary flash-forward (which was added to the script for God knows what reason) showing a future without internet or something. It did NOTHING for the story except make an already dangerously slow first act five minutes slower.

But here’s the real issue. Pfister has spent the majority of his career being a technician. His job is to capture an image. Directing, on the other hand, is a creative role, requiring thought and inventive choices and imagination and inspiration.  Pfister never figured that out, and therefore approached directing like a technician would.

Look at Transcendence: Everything was “technically” okay here. The effects shots were fine. The cinematography was pretty good. The lighting was fine. Actors stood where they were supposed to stand and delivered their lines when they were supposed to deliver them.

But that’s not what a director is supposed to do. A director must elevate the material on the page. And Pfister was only interested in transferring the material from the page. For example, one of the most important things a director must do is get performances out of his actors. There were zero performances in Transcendence. Not a single one. Every single actor in this movie played THE EXACT SAME EMOTION. Which was downtrodden/sad/reserved. I have never seen a movie where every character acted so similarly.

Also, the dangerous thing about a character who is downtrodden/sad/reserved is that if you play that emotion wrong, it comes off as “bored.” And for that reason, every single actor in this movie looked bored. They looked unengaged. It was almost like there was a meeting beforehand to drive home the point that nobody was to emit any emotion during this movie. Ever. Just look sad and deliver your lines in a monotonous voice.

TRANSCENDENCE“Hi, I’m Agent Bored.” “And I’m Agent Sad.”

The question was: Was this problem there in the script or just in the movie? It’s been awhile since I read the script, but I remember a more vivid and varied cast. I remember more personality in the characters. And again, I remember all the subtext that played out in that love triangle. With that gone, and everyone pretty much speaking on-the-nose, surface-level sentences to one another, it was hard to find any drama anywhere. This means you had flat performances delivering flat lines inside flat relationships. That right there is Transcendence in a nutshell.

Now, there was one big script mistake that I didn’t notice the first time around that I’m kicking myself for. And it’s a biggie. In fact, it’s one of the most destructive things you can do to your screenplay – a succubus that can destroy your script from the inside-out. Evelyn, our main character, was passive/reactive (aka the old passive protagonist problem – PPP). It’s almost impossible for a script to overcome a passive protagonist, and Transcendence shows why.

EVELYN NEVER DOES ANYTHING! She never instigates anything. She never activates anything. She never goes after anything. When your main character doesn’t do anything other than wait around for other people to make choices or do things, we will get bored with her.  We will get annoyed by her.  We will build up anger towards her, quietly thinking with each passing minute, “Why aren’t you DOING anything???”  And that is exactly what happened here.

In fact, Evelyn is so unengaged that we begin to wonder if she really is the main character. Max, Will’s friend, is the one trying to stop all of this, but even HE’S passive in the way he goes about it, allowing RIFT to come to him and suggest they rescue her. So that’s two out of our three main characters who aren’t doing anything but waiting for others to tell them what to do.

That leaves Will. Will is active, but it’s never clear WHAT he’s actively trying to do. He’s building something… but why? We’re not sure. In the script, where we have action scenes of RIFT attacking Will, we’re distracted enough that we don’t really care that much. But now, with there being virtually no action at all, we’re a lot more aware that Will’s creation doesn’t seem to have a point.

Finally I was reminded, after reading and then watching the film, that seemingly trivial logic issues on the page become INTENSELY MAGNIFIED on the screen. When you read, your brain is more active, as it needs to construct the images of the story you’re reading. When you watch a movie, however, it’s more of a passive experience and because of that, your brain has more time to ask questions, to wonder. Indeed, I couldn’t stop wondering WHY THE HELL the U.S. Army wasn’t trying to get rid of Will’s mini-fortress??? If it was really as dangerous as they were saying, why only send a second-tier local FBI agent to fix the problem??

So what does this all mean? Well, I think the badness that is Transcendence can be blamed equally on the director and the final shooting script. Wally Pfister did not infuse a single scene with life. NOT ONE! And that’s not hyperbole. Go watch this and point out one scene that was inspired. You can’t.

But you can’t discount that script issues played a part in the problem. Like the choice to eliminate the love story, the lack of any real set pieces (which was a strength in the original script), instituting a passive main character, and allowing heavy logic issues to slip through the development phase.

If there’s anything I learned here, it’s that if it feels like a minor problem on the page, it’s going to be a HUGE PROBLEM on the screen. Get it fixed or be embarrassed once you see all those glossy eyes at the premiere.

[x] what the hell did I just watch?
[ ] wasn’t for me
[ ] worth the price of admission
[ ] impressive
[ ] genius

What I learned: Something else I learned here was the importance of CHARACTER VARIATION. Every character here emitted the same downbeat serious demeanor and it absolutely killed the movie. Without variation in character, characters can’t contrast. Without contrast, everyone feels like a clone, a walking copy of one another. Have someone get angry. Have someone be funny. Have someone be crazy. Have someone be awkward. But whatever you do, don’t have everybody be exactly alike.

  • Jim Dandy

    I’ve got several theories:

    1) All those acronyms make the movie sound like a Nerd-A-Thon. There is no more passive a device than an acronym, because some character has to engage in a big slab of dialogue exposition to explain the meaning of the acronym. And then the poor old audience has to remember what the acronym stands for, assuming they are still awake. I can’t think of one successful movie where someone stands around explaining what acronyms stand for.

    2) The whole movie is based around concepts that are not personified or made corporeal. That means everyone spends their time trying to explain abstract concepts. Look at James Cameron’s The Terminator to see how abstract concepts – such as computers gone bonkers – are rendered into visuals that are easy to understand. There are no acronyms in The Terminator either. The computer is called ‘SkyNet’ and the bad guy is called ‘The Terminator’. Imagine how lame the movie would have been if Kyle had to explain a bunch of acronyms to Sarah Connor.

    3) Johnny Depp spends most of his time on a computer monitor. Heroes need to DO heroic things to demonstrate their heroism. How can old Johnny Boy be heroic if he’s pixelated? C’mon, every screenwriting book tells you that the hero and villain need to be on-stage at the big showdown.

    4) The trailer looks lame. You don’t have any idea what the movie is about from the trailer.

    • Casper Chris

      HAL 9000 is an acronym.

      • Jim Dandy

        Yeah, but no-one *explains* what it means. It’s the same as being a name, just like the Terminator.

        • Casper Chris

          Yea, I had a feeling that’s what you meant. But you were singling out acronyms so I had to respond ;)

  • paul

    It’s the premise.

    Sorry, even if this was well-crafted, the story premise is murky to the movie going audience that has never heard of Transcendence. Look how convoluted the summary of the premise is:

    Premise: A love story set in a time where a dying scientist is able to
    upload his consciousness into the internet and, facing its global
    implications, must fight against the forces who are actively working
    against the existence of a singularity.

    Sometimes, readers and those in Hollywood Development want something different, they kind of lose touch with whats appealing to the general moviegoing audience. Starting with the title “Transcendence”—does that make you want to go to the theaters right away? When I saw the trailer, I wasn’t that interested in watching it… the story wasn’t clear. The movie looked drab and you have a bald pixelated Johnny Depp—not the image of Johnny Depp audiences want to see him as. They don’t want to see him as a weird Tonto or a pixelation. They want to see him as a quirky swashbuckler. Draft Day and Transcendence are not good representatives for the spec script. Draft day a sports movie is a hard sell anyway…and Transcendence will not exactly the cooler word of mouth premise.

  • sgelam

    I saw this on Thursday night and really looked forward to it because the story’s first act was set in Berkeley and I actually went to Berkeley and studied artificial intelligence. I was thinking, “Hmmm…maybe they’ll introduce some cool twisty things that deal with consciousness.” Could I be ever so wrong. Aside from the usual story mechanics being completely off (inactive protagonist, not much conflict, indistinct characters, no real central villain, etc.), the characters, who are suppose to be Berkeley professors or researchers, sounded like they had no idea what they were talking about. Many things weren’t even explored. Here’s the other unmentioned problems about Transcendence:

    1. They introduced a question that the Will-simulation is most likely not Will. They should’ve really explored this further. This is more philosophy than computer science of which AI is very much half of. They could’ve shown a very simple philosophical game to illustrate their theory. Imagine you can live infinitely. Imagine that for each day, one of your neurons is replaced by a chip that functions just like a neuron. One, two, three, maybe five-hundred neurons won’t make a difference. After 500 million years (500 million neurons) are you half machine? Are you still a conscious human being? What happens when your brain is 80% artificial? Or, even 100% artificial? Are you even aware? This would’ve been interesting to explore.

    2. Why did they NOT consult Berkeley philosophy professors. I noticed in the end credits that they consulted two professors from Berkeley: neuroscience and EECS. Not to say that these professor don’t know what they’re talking about. But, when you’re writing a movie called “Transcendence” how can you neglect the artificial intelligence and cognitive science philosophers. They could’ve consulted Searle or Lakoff. Hell, they could’ve even consulted some big name cognitive psychologists to really spice up the script.

    3. Because the protagonist was inactive, you couldn’t even have her ask the heavy hitting questions and get the Will-simulation to conflict with her in interesting ways. This movie could’ve been really kick-ass like Moon. Moon had a very active protagonist and the antagonist (well, in a way, he wasn’t a villain, just someone acting against him) was just as active also. This made for a great push and pull. And, they didn’t neglect the philosophy aspect. Imagine if they consulted biology and genetics professors for Moon? It wouldn’t have been as interesting. See where I’m getting at? The interesting questions aren’t at the science levels, but at the meta-science levels. The ones that question how the science functions.

    4. The computer interfaces were ridiculous. When he initially had his consciousness transferred, how is it that the computer started to slowly build an image of Will on the screen. It didn’t even make sense. I think the writer thought that’s how computers work. Each piece of code is a pixel or something. Also, the code they were displaying wasn’t even code. It was just random letters and numbers. I’m actually questioning as to what capacity those consulting professors were used.

    Transcendence was not only boring, but unoriginal and badly researched. This movie actually broke one of the cardinal rules of screenwriting: If you start to make stuff up and bullshit too much, the reader will know.

    • andyjaxfl

      Your first point is excellent — I don’t recall it in the draft I read either. I read an interesting article about artificial brains years ago, but one of the leading scientists made a great similar to your own. If a person named Fred receives an artificial brain with all of his memories prior to the transplant, is he still Fred or is he a machine with Fred’s memories and body?

      • sgelam

        You should also read Searle’s Chinese Room example. It’s something similar. It was a thought-exercise he created in the 70s to show how an AI entity is not conscious and that true “understanding” of emotions and being human is weak at best. He originated the concepts of “strong AI” and “weak AI.”

      • MaliboJackk

        Depends on the wiring.
        We are what we think and feel, IMO.

  • andyjaxfl

    Regarding the Blacklist, could the writer’s people (agent, manager, etc) promoted the hell out of this script and convinced everyone that it was the next great science fiction story when in fact it wasn’t? They did right by their client, but pulled the wool over our eyes for a collective “HA! We fooled you and our boy is getting every science fiction writing assignment in town!”

  • Buddy

    Honestly I’m not surprised.
    I told in post under you review of transcendance’s script, that I wasn’t convinced by the trailer, neither by the concept. The ending felt stupid to me.
    And I LOVE Nolan and Pfister’s work…
    But this one, I don’t know, I could feel the “false good idea” film.
    It’s the quintessence of the “high-concept movie”, and I think – I hope – that people get bored with that dictatorship in Hollywood.
    We just want good characters and a cool plot, not something over complicated !!

  • MaliboJackk

    Thought they test marketed movies.
    (Usually at the end of the process.)

    Would it make more sense to test market scripts??

    • David Sarnecki

      Dangerous, slippery slope.

      • jw

        ahahah! They’re already doing it.

      • MaliboJackk

        Not what I had in mind.

        I attended a reading of Shane Black’s The Nice Guys.
        Took place in a theater and not much different than watching a play.

        They only needed one well known actor to help draw a crowd. In this case
        Peter Weller and you weren’t just seeing him on the screen — you were
        watching him perform in person. All the other actors appeared to be
        unknowns.

        In this sense, it wouldn’t be much different than having a focus group watch the movie and comment on the plot.

  • leitskev

    Monday morning rambling.

    I much appreciate the general approach this blog takes to scripts and film. People can disagree with the conclusions, I often do, but I wish more adopted the approach, which is actually the scientific method.

    The scientific method: observe, form theory, test theory, analyze, then begin again.

    It seems simple, but so many in this field use a different method. For one thing, they don’t formulate their own theory, they apply theory they’ve been taught. Which can still be productive, but they skip the absolutely critical next step: test the theory.

    I think it’s important that if one accepts a rule, whether it’s something developed on his own, read in a book, or learned in a class…he HAS to test that theory by observing a large sample of successful films and seeing to what extent the theory is useful. And this testing has to be an ongoing process that never ends.

    Carson seems to be constantly testing his perceived “rules” for script and film against what he reads and sees. And adjusting accordingly. That’s what everyone should be doing. And many are not.

    Many tend to learn something that sounds like a sensible rule. When they are taught the rule, they are given a few examples to support it, and the debate for them is over. The rule gains a weight that almost forms it into a law, and it’s never questioned again.

    Approach is everything. And I think one’s approach should involved always weighing these theories against what we see. We all would love it if theory could be boiled down to a few easy to remember general things. “It’s all about…”. But not everything in life can be reduced to that. Take romantic love, for instance. It’s an immensely complicated and varied thing that takes many different forms. We could break it down to “it’s all about procreation”, but would that really help us understand the many intricate ways love impacts human behavior?

    Each one of us has theories about what makes a good script or film. All I’m saying is have you tested these theories regularly? Do you force the film to fit the model, or do you really get under the hood and try to see what’s driving the thing? There are people here that do in fact get under the hood, and I appreciate their thoughts and always tune in. So thank you for your work! I don’t always say so, but I do always check in and read. Keep up the good work.

    • brenkilco

      Haven’t read the script and don’t intend to waste my time watching the movie, at least until it pops up on cable. But here’s what I’m getting from the review. Take a cool idea (that is, a derivative idea whose antecedents are far enough back that execs and most audiences won’t know or recall them, gussied up with the latest tech), add a rote plot with dull, indistinguishable characters and a protagonist who does nothing to propel the movie forward, ignore gaping gaps in logic, finish with a preposterous twist that renders much of what precedes it ridiculous, conceal all the rubbish with action fireworks. Add salt to taste. Hollywood all over.

      Would the movie itself really have been improved appreciably by more action scenes and a love triangle, or even by having an auteur at the helm? It seems like Carson and a lot of other people got sucked in by the bells and whistles and missed the narrative boat on this.

      Never thought I’d be favorably quoting Anton Chigurh but…”If the rule you followed led you to this, of what use was the rule?”

      • leitskev

        Yeah, hard for us to say without reading the script or seeing the film. My take is that the basic idea is sound because it’s highly relevant. I mean the possibility of AI growing hostile is right around the corner, and nano-tech would be a key part of it. And the idea of downloading a human’s mind, though also not original, is also increasingly relevant as technology progresses. Even though many aspects of it have been done before, I would hesitate to call it derivative because it stems from real conjectures about what could happen in the not very distant future.

        I spoke with a friend who watched it yesterday, and she said the problem is we don’t invest in the relationship between these characters. We don’t see the bonds form, see almost no evidence of those bonds, so as the story develops we don’t really care what happens.

        I agree on the twist! Jeez, didn’t they audience test that? That’s the kind of twist that could ruin even a good movie, leave people exiting while head scratching.

        • brenkilco

          Not derivitive? Heck, evil sentient computers bent on domination are practically a sci fi subgenre. From fifties kitsch like Donovan’s brain through Colossus: The Forbin Project, Demon Seed, Freejack, multiple episodes of Start Trek including the Landru episode that was ripped off in last year’s The Purge. Sometimes featuring computers with human consciousness injected. Sometimes not. Trust me, nanobots aside, this thing is not exactly original.

          • leitskev

            What I mean is there’s possibly a difference between derivative and familiar. A baseball movie done today is not necessarily derivative, though it is familiar. Same with Mafia story, spy movie, etc.

            If a person had never seen any of those movies, it would be not only possible, but quite likely that a writer would come up with a story based on uploading a mind and a hostile AI attacking humanity. It’s a widely discussed topic in the science world.

            I interpret derivative to mean derived from something else. Just because a story bears a resemblance does not mean it’s derivative. There may be a fine line, but there is one.

          • G.S.

            All stories have been told. The key is finding a new way of telling them. Isn’t that how we got genres? The word “derivative” is only really applicable when there isn’t enough difference between the new telling and the old.

          • leitskev

            Well said.

  • UrbaneGhoul

    I can imagine the removal of action scenes was also an attempt to make this a “smart” movie. “This is about technology!” “This has themes, not action.” Funny that sites I go to that usually eat this shit up hated this movie.

  • fragglewriter

    By looking at the trailer, it didn’t intrigue me, but made me feel like it’s no different than most overbudgeted movies.
    Based on Carson’s review, I’m glad that the love traingle was gone. Why do writers/director have to constantly pick from the same box. I know that the love traingle might be a safe way to create tension, but there are other ways other than the American safe of doing it with 3-people. I haven’t read the script, so I can’t offer another way to create tension,

    Also, the bullet with radiation and dying with a few days/weeks. Why not use a regular bullet and have him bleed out within minutes/hours? Why wait for death if you really hate someone.
    Passive characters in a script do work if your pushing them against a wall that they have to react. It might not be interesting, but the choices they make might not necesarrily be the right choice as the story progresses.
    I think this flop doesn’t hurt the SPEC market unless your looking for a $60+ million budget. Writers need to write at least one script that can be shot with a minimal budget, preferably around the $25 million neighborhood. Studios will look at this movie and might say “if he/she can do it with $25M, I wonder what they can do with $100M?”
    Also, not every director knows what to do with big ideas.

    • Nate

      ”Also, the bullet with radiation and dying with a few days/weeks. Why not use a regular bullet and have him bleed out within minutes/hours? Why wait for death if you really hate someone. ”

      To be fair using a bullet laced with radiation is much smarter than using a normal bullet because even if the shooter hits the victim in the arm there’s no way they could possibly survive it. They’d still die, it’ll just take a bit longer and be more painful.
      It might not be very realistic but this is a movie about a guy uploading his brain to the internet. Realism goes right out of the window in this case.

      • fragglewriter

        Ok. maybe if I look at it that way. That could also be a reason why I hate sci-fi moves. Realism goes right out of the window in almost every scene.

        • G.S.

          This is a bugaboo of mine. The requirement of the suspension of disbelief is not a blank check to throw out “realism.” It simply means that certain aspects of the reality in which we live every day cannot be universally applied to the world of the film.

          Realism is a contextual term. It’s essential to the writer to build a world with discernible rules within which all other story choices must proceed naturally. A failure to suspend disbelief can be based on the writer not doing a good enough job establishing the rules and following them, but it’s often just an audience thing. Some people just aren’t built for it.

          • fragglewriter

            I’m definitely not one built for it. But if it’s story that has elements of sci-fi (Alien, Aliens, Predator, Terminator, Cocoon, E.T., etc), then I would be able to follow a story.

    • leitskev

      “Passive characters in a script do work if your pushing them against a wall that they have to react.” Yup. People that make movies know this. Too many that analyze scripts do not.

  • Logline_Villain

    While it’s all too easy to be a Monday morning quarterback re: the recent spec bombs, I submit that, to a large degree, both premises were flawed from the outset, at least in terms of marketability, and likewise forgot the central tenet that most successful movies provide an escape, something out of the ordinary:

    1) As for Draft Day: we get thrilling football games on any given Saturday & Sunday for four to five months out of the year – sports movies are inherently risky because the artificial simply cannot outdo real-life.

    2) As for Transcendence (agree w/ others that the new-age sounding title did movie no favors): Computers/smart phones are so integrated into every facet of our lives now that a movie based on artificial intelligence faces an uphill battle in terms of providing us with escapist fun. And in the case of Transcendence (read the script, have yet to see the movie) – per Carson’s review, the escapist fun appears to have been intentionally removed (love story, big set pieces and explosions – as easy as it is to pile on Michael Bay, he recognizes the importance of the latter)! Contrast this with the upcoming All You Need Is Kill, where big set pieces were already in place and the script has reportedly been revised to further develop the love story between Cruise & Blunt’s characters.

    I’m glad Carson brought up the HUGE organic flaw of the US Military being in absentia despite such an apparent threat – I couldn’t get over that one aspect of the script.

    Lastly, there’s the uninspiring trailer for Transcendence: IMHO, further evidence that this movie was probably doomed to an $11M opening weekend.

    • wlubake

      Spec scripts should have something fun on the screen to sell them. Think Night at the Museum. A dinosaur skeleton chasing Ben Stiller. That trailer image sold that movie more than anything else. Chronicle had the prankster fun of the kids learning to use their powers. Neither Draft Day nor Transcendence had those trailer moments. You want to make sure your spec has a scene that is the visual summary of your script’s hook. Help the trailer guys out.

  • David Sarnecki

    I remembered you liked this project a lot when you initially reviewed it, so I hoped you planned to revisit it after it bombed critically and commercially. Cool idea.

    The only point that you don’t touch on that I think actually is the most important thing to note is that it looked terrible. It looked like a dumb concept handled in a dumb way, and nothing in the trailers inspired any sort of anything beyond “Well that looks silly.” Maybe if they had those tank set pieces you were talking about it would have allowed the trailer to have any sort of money shot at all to sell people on. The emotional investment of the love triangle would have no doubt helped too.

    A real shame.

  • Randy Williams

    Yeah, a punch to the gut.

    Why did they release this in the spring?

    I would think “artificial intelligence” is the least thing on peoples’ minds in hormonally flushed springtime.

    Give me religious themes for Easter and some artificial breasts. Screw intelligence.

  • JakeBarnes12

    Haven’t seen the movie, but am I the only one who didn’t like the script? I read about fifty pages and was so bored and unengaged I just drifted away from it and never returned.

    I agree with the script issues you raise, Carson, but I’d like to add another huge one: all the characters seemed in thrall to the plot. I never had a sense of “real” human beings who might make decisions that would send the story into crazy new directions.

    This sense of character agency in story is an illusion, of course, but it is a necessary one if the story is to feel alive and engaging. The problem with high concept stories is often the writer’s assumption that the situation will carry the day. You marry this to structural proficiency, and a dulling airlessness often results.

    The solution is obviously not to toss structure, but to create the illusion that structure emerges from character choices. Seems to me the way to achieve that illusion lies in the planning stages where we confront clearly defined characters with dilemmas and “let them go.” In other words, some looseness can let a story develop in more unexpected and intriguing ways.

    • ChristianSavage

      Great points, Jake. I see this problem all the time in high-concept scripts. I completely agree with your solution and wish more writers would use it.

    • leitskev

      An interesting and to me original observation. I’m trying to digest it a little more and think just how we can create this “looseness”, but a very interesting point that will linger with me.

    • ThomasBrownen

      I liked the script, but haven’t seen the movie yet. I was hoping to see it this weekend, but through a series of unexpected events I ended up seeing Heaven Is for Real instead. (Sidenote: I went in to that movie with REALLY low expectations, but was pleasantly surprised. It clocked in at a solid [x] worth the read/watch, and I’m further convinced that I would become embarrassingly starstruck if I were ever to meet Randall Wallace.)

      The Transcendent script wasn’t anything great or mind-blowingly original, but I thought it had fun with its cool set pieces and touched on some interesting ideas about technology and human consciousness. There were some logic issues in the draft I read (notably, why would Will wait to explain that he was a good guy?) and I assumed that the opening flashforward in the script was too dumb to remain in the final movie (but apparently it’s still there). But still, I assumed these issues would be addressed, and if they weren’t, the movie would be well made and, at worst, would be an average movie. Nothing flop-worthy.

      Now sometimes I like a script and the movie flops, but I can easily pinpoint what went wrong. E.g., 47 Ronin. I liked the script, but it appears that the early draft I read was rewritten in development to the point where the final movie was nothing like the original script, and was nowhere close to being as good.

      But here, the final movie seems to be relatively close to the script that I read, and the fact that it flopped has left me with a MAJOR confidence crisis. Are my reading skills that bad that I couldn’t see a huge flop coming? Because if my reading skills are that bad, my writing skills are worse. And to make matters worse, I’m working on a sci-fi script right now, so what if my own script is similarly doomed to be a flop?? PANIC, PANIC, PANIC!!

      So I’m really glad to have this post today. Because if I can figure out what went wrong with this movie, I have a chance of avoiding it with my own.

      And I think Carson’s post just about nailed it. The script had its weaknesses, and they went unfixed and were only amplified by the directing. And when shortening the script by about ten pages, it seems they cut out the parts I liked the most (the cool battle scenes and the tension in Evelyn’s relationships). (Note to self: If I can’t get my screenplays down to a reasonable length, someone else will… and the script will likely be much, much worse than what I would write.)

      Also, I like what JakeBarnes says about failing to write good characters because we assume our concept is high enough. I remember reading this script thinking that Evelyn had the best role — she was torn between her new, living love and her dead, true love. But the other characters were sort of… blah. They existed merely to be mechanisms in a larger plot, not to live and breathe on their own.

      So… overall, it’s sad to see this movie flop so hard. I still think Jack Paglen has a lot of talent, even if it didn’t come through in the final movie. I’m glad to see I’m not the only one who was caught off guard this flop, and I hope we all can learn from it and avoid making similar mistakes.

    • JakeMLB

      This is probably right, although I think you’re selling the script a little short. There are some interesting philosophical ideas here that could have been explored and more than enough drama. And the love-triangle that Carson mentions added just enough depth and if anything should have been amplified not removed.

      But I think Carson nailed it in his analysis of character agency (who is the protagonist? if it’s Evelyn she needs to take greater agency) and logic issues — though they aren’t so much logic issues as story issues. Much of the second act played out rather bizarrely in that little story was actually taking place. Why the military or anyone would let Will happily go about his way at the compound was completely nonsensical. It also makes things challenging when your antagonist is essentially omnipotent and omniscient

      As far as the twist in the end, on the page I enjoyed it but I had my concerns how it would translate on scene. There really is no reason for Will not to explain his motivations earlier. That was a tough balance and it’s probably why the director chose to remove the battle scenes — effectively removing all the fun. For the twist to work it requires managing Will’s choices with a lot of tact. We need to believe that Will is either acting defensively, is acting naively, or is acting in some other way that justifies his explanation. I thought these would be addressed from script-to-screen but that doesn’t seem to be the case.

      This really could have — and should have — been a good film, even in spite of the script’s flaws, because this WAS a pretty good script as written. It just seems that not enough was done to DEVELOP the script further. That can happen with specs or with scripts on assignment.

    • garrett_h

      Thank you, thank you, thank you!

      I was bored to death with the script. I tried to read it three or four times and never could get past halfway. It kept getting universal acclaim so I thought maybe it was just me. Glad to know it wasn’t.

      Hate to say it but I knew this was gonna bomb. The script wasn’t interesting at all (at least what I read of it). And that came across in the trailers. Seriously, who watching the commercial at home is saying, “Man, I can’t wait to see that!”

      • Cfrancis1

        Spot on about the trailer. I had heard the script was amazing but the trailer did nothing for me. The studio had no idea how to sell this movie, which doesn’t always spell disaster (Disney totally dropped the ball on the Frozen trailers and it turned out to be terrific), but nine times out of ten is a very bad sign.

    • witwoud

      “All the characters seemed in thrall to the plot.” — Well put that man!

    • PeterMertesacker

      Agreed. This script was filled with problems — logic holes throughout, endless exposition-like techno-speak, and those characters…

      I’m actually surprised Carson fell so hard for the love angle in the script. It was the sole reason why Evelyn felt so hollow. She’s a bloody scientist, on the cutting edge of world-changing technology, but when her husband is in danger she just tosses it aside despite knowing better than anyone the consequences? Because she’s sad? At best it’s screenwriterly “personal” drama shoehorned in to give the film more stakes, at worst it’s an insulting, base portrayal of a needy woman in a man’s eyes.

      This was an interesting overall idea, and more of those should be made. But this needed a total rethinking. Not surprised in the least that it didn’t work.

  • mulesandmud

    The situation is a real shame, on multiple levels, but I’ll leave it to others to assign blame. Sufficed to say these things can go bad in a million ways, and rarely go bad in just one. Meanwhile, the spec market will limp on.

    A sci-fi thought:

    I love the notion of an artificial intelligence that knows what’s good for humanity better than humanity does. An intelligence that has our best interests at heart, but one that we fight against because we fear it. Because don’t understand. In that story, the computer wouldn’t be the real enemy…we would. Just like in the best zombie movies, where the zombies scare us at first but ultimately turn out to be just a backdrop for the real danger: other people.

    ‘Transcendence’ seemed to love this idea too, but was unwilling to find an actual story about it. Instead, it consisted of 129 pages of functional thriller built on a foundation of cheap technophobia, then two pages of Will-didn’t-want-to-kill-us-after-all plot twist that suggested the story I wished it were. The title didn’t do them any favors: if you call your film ‘Transcendence’, it better at least try to rise above the standard regressive claptrap.

    Movies have been giving us versions of the rise-of-the-machines scenario for decades, and frankly, those ideas were old by sci-fi standards when they first hit the screen. We forgave that staleness once because James Cameron made his version so exciting (then made a sequel that was even more exciting). We forgave it again when the Wachowskis made their version uber-exciting and pseudo-profound (then made sequels that were exhausting megabudget dorm-room bullshit sessions). There’s always room for more forgiveness, I guess, but the story better be god-damned exciting, because this shit was past its expiration date when it came out of the fridge.

    Back in 1950, Asimov published his amazing collection ‘I, Robot’, which demonstrated the complexities of an A.I. future without making technology the villain. In the final story, two people discover a conspiracy by which machines have been controlling us for many years. After some debate, they decide not to reveal the truth, because the machines are doing things better than we can, and with better intentions than ours. Big ideas.

    That book was later adapted into a film where Will Smith punched metal dudes.

    The further technology burrows itself into the DNA of our culture, the sillier it seems to fear it for the same old reasons. Get new reasons or get a new bad guy. The specter of a digital bogeyman is fading fast; stories that don’t look for fresh drama had better stay out of the deep end of the sci-fi pool.

    • brenkilco

      I often wonder if the dirty secret of those who toil in the realm of A.I. is that at heart they don’t believe it’s artificial at all. They realize that the human mind contains a finite number of neural connections and that the illusion of consciousness may be merely a function of the sheer number of neurons and the complexity of the inputs and outputs. But someday, and who knows how soon, when the number of connections can be matched and the inputs effectively mimicked…….

      • mulesandmud

        I guess it’s only artificial in the most basic sense; we created it, as opposed to intelligence that occurred naturally, without our help. Once that new intelligence exists, though, and is understood unambiguously as intelligence, the question of nature vs. artifice sort of goes out the window.

  • bluedenham

    Thanks for a very timely and interesting analysis. Yes, this is going to make it harder for spec writers. But understanding what went wrong will certainly help me write better scripts.

  • Franchise Blueprints

    I’m noticing something that gets mentioned a lot on this site. The word “hero”. When you reference that word in relation to your main character, you set up a myopic, laser beam tunnel limitation. I think as writers WE need to actively use the word protagonist. We also need to defend against directors, actors, and producers trying to pigeon hole our characters in that mold. Movies like Transcendence will always fail because of the hero expectation. If the writer’s original intention was to have a nuanced protagonist, we the viewer/reader undercut the experience by having a hero mindset. A hero always needs to do heroic deeds. A protagonist has an arc developed by the plot, furthered by the story. Which description are you more on board with when your (ticket) money represents a voting choice.

    • G.S.

      I agree to a point. Protagonist is certainly more correct from THIS side of the screen. But hero is the functional term from the OTHER side. Regardless of how nuanced the character is, the protagonist is the one the viewer is supposed to root for. The viewer wants the protagonist to reach their goal. Because of the difficulty in writing a character who’s ultimate goal is something universally immoral, the protagonist is usually trying to accomplish something “good” while being countered by an antogonist with an opposing goal – the “bad” thing. Yes, protagonist/antagonist is technically preferable to hero/villain, but the relational ideas are essentially the same.

      What’s wrong with shorthand?

      • Franchise Blueprints

        You’re right from OUR side of the screen we should enforce the usage of the word protagonist. Technically hero and protagonist are one in the same. But there’s something about the word hero that’s so cut and dry. When I think of the word protagonist characters like R.P McMurphy or Clarice Starling come to mind. When I think of the word hero John McClane, Ripley or Jason Bourne comes to mind. It may have more to do with me than the semantics of either word.
        Nothing is wrong with shorthand as long as our character creations don’t get shortchanged.

    • astranger2

      While I agree with your general thoughts, I think it’s difficult today to have characters with ambivalent character arcs. Everything is modeled on Campbell’s “The Hero With a Thousand Faces” — and I don’t know Stanley Kowalski, or a “protagonist” from “East of Eden” or “Five Easy Pieces” would do well in today’s film market. The current spec market might be a Bonnie Tyler world?

      • Franchise Blueprints

        We aren’t completely devoid of modern day protagonists. Anytime a John Grisham novel gets adapted I think of his characters as protagonist / antagonist.

        • astranger2

          Most of Grisham’s protagonists have the hero’s arc — character-infused, but still driven by a Tom Cruise-type active protagonist.

          Take The Verdict, adapted by Mamet from a different novelist — alcoholic, lost, betrayed… betrayed again… Wonder how much more box-office revenue it would’a raked in if they ended the movie at the actual verdict — instead of Newman alone in his roach-infested office, not answering Rampling’s calls…

          We live in a prosperous time. The markets are soaring… An iPod or iPhone in every pot… No one likes down endings…

          How would The Hustler — one of the finest pictures ever made — do today? Grisham’s adaptations work because his protagonists are still — heroes. IMO…

  • jw

    A film can go wrong a million ways over, so why that would be tied to the writer is beyond me, and I think this point may be a bit over-stated. Let’s be honest, look at David Benioff’s track record and tell me after the fifth film he wrote lost money why he got Game of Thrones? I would actually venture to say this has NOTHING to do with the writer or the writing (at least from its original form). Once a script is completed, it’s now in the hands of others and often times is rewritten multiple times, then a director jumps on board and takes it in a different direction, then an A-lister signs on and morphs it again. Then, once it’s shot, it’s up to the marketers to really create something that puts people in the seats. There are so many layers to this that I don’t think it impacts the writer really at all.

    And, honestly, while we ascribe “blame” here and there, is it not also about the audience? Transcendence doesn’t fill seats, but Bad Grandpa does. I mean, realistically, we don’t live in a world of “high-brow” unless something wins awards. That may not be a very popular comment, but let’s be honest. This is a different generation going to the movies.
    Inversely to that, audiences can pick up on what a storyline is within a trailer (which can be a good or bad thing) and when the people putting the trailer together don’t do a very good job of telling an original / unique story in 2 1/2 minutes, then people don’t show up. Period. And, none of this has anything to do with the writer.

    • wlubake

      After star power, I think trailer influences opening weekend more than anything. The Transcendence trailers were a mess, giving little reason to go see it. Depp couldn’t carry the weight himself.
      Reviews rank much lower, and that’s the only way bad directing influences opening box office.

      • jw

        True. When I watched the trailers I just thought, I don’t want to see a love story here, I want to see a real story. But, I also knew that the studio likely made them do that because they’re trying to hit as many quads as possible. The art of creating a trailer is almost as valuable as putting together the entire film and yet, there are times where the studio system and the “predetermined” rollout are actually what kills it.

      • brenkilco

        Agree. Absent atomic buzz, opening weekends are all about marketable concepts. Mostly ones that will excite the the fifteen to twenty five crowd. And when the one sheet image you’re selling is a pallid, emaciated Johnny Depp with electrodes protruding from his chemo bald pate, well, nobody got the impression it was Pirates 5.

  • Tailmonsterfriend

    Forgive me for venting, but TRANSCENDENCE has been pissing me off since the day I heard of this project.

    Let me explain.

    First, I had been working on a scifi script that shares some very big themes with TRANSCENDENCE: emergent AI, human augmentation, humanity’s place in a world dominated by thinking machines, etc. So seeing a script get picked up that talked a lot about things that I wanted to talk about, and then seeing major Hollywood talent attach itself to the project, was a huge bummer. I can empathize with Del Toro for shelving AT THE MOUNTAINS OF MADNESS after PROMETHEUS came out, because there’s a surprising amount of theme overlap there (although I think we got cheated, because ATMOM would have been a waaaaay better movie than PROMETHEUS).

    So, that sucked.

    And then, upon further examination, the script for TRANSCENDENCE was super, super strong. I mean, Jesus Christ, this thing had so much going for it. It would have been easy to hate it if it had been a mediocre effort, but it wasn’t. So on top of getting scooped, I got bested. I couldn’t even be mad at this guy, he was just too good. Jealousy is not a flattering color on me, so I grudgingly conceded that he was first, he put in the work, he deserved all the glory. That’s just the way life goes: sometimes, someone else is going to beat you to the punch.

    And then came the trailers.

    I started to have a really, really bad feeling about the movie translation of the script when I saw the trailers. They just looked so… bland. This didn’t look like the TRANSCENDENCE I had imagined in my head when I read the script. This looked like what would happen if you put George Michael’s girlfriend from Arrested Development (“Egg?”) in the director’s chair. But hey, maybe this was just some residual misgivings about how I had let this script so thoroughly and enthusiastically piss on my parade. Maybe if this movie made it big, other studios would want to make more movies like this one.

    And finally, the reviews. AKA the nail in the script coffin.

    So it turns out the movie *does* suck. It absolutely *is* as bland as the trailers made it seem. And that, my friends, pissed me off more than anything else. What a squandered opportunity. What a waste of money, talent, and time.

    But you know what? Screw those guys, I’m finishing my own script. And it’ll be even better than TRANSCENDENCE (or at least I’ll try to make it better; no guarantees). And in all likelihood nothing will ever come of it, thanks to this box office bomb, but that’s not really what matters to me anymore. I just want to finish this thing and make it something that I won’t just be happy about, but proud of.

    So, if you see a script about crazy AI, our cyberpunk future, and a therapist struggling to deal with the loss of his daughter some fine Amateur Friday in the future, give it a read. I would like that very much.

    • ChristianSavage

      I can definitely relate to your experience. I’m also working on a singularity/human augmentation script, so when Transcendence first came on the scene, I was distraught. But eventually, I felt better about the whole thing, and here’s why. Even when it came to the script, Transcendence took the path of least resistance. If you’ve done any kind of research, and I’m sure you have, it’s easy to argue that Transcendence didn’t put a new spin on the subject matter. It took a well-worn version of the A.I. story and slapped it on the page without reaching for fresh insights.

      With that in mind, look at the recent wave of zombie movies we’ve had. Zombies are practically a genre unto themselves. For several years, it seems no one stopped to think, “Well, gee, someone else already came up with undead cannibals. Guess I’m screwed.” Everything from Zombieland to World War Z has done well because they’ve each had a fun and unique take on zombies. Not to mention The Walking Dead, which is pretty much the most popular show on cable.

      Same thing with alien invasion movies. You’d think after 60 years of producing them, we wouldn’t find a new way to cover that ground. And then something like District 9 comes along.

      From that standpoint, why should robotics be any different? Transcendence isn’t the first or last movie to be made with this basic concept. Others will follow in time, and some will achieve breakout success. Who knows? If the stars align, it might even be yours.

  • witwoud

    Great article, Carson. Made me laugh for the first time today.

  • RafaelSilvaeSouza

    Great article. I just don’t agree with the part that says that a DP is not creative. A good DP tells a story using light — and that takes a lot of thought and inventive choices and imagination and inspiration. Yes, there’s a technical part — but there’s also a technical part on writing a screenplay.

    • mulesandmud

      Wow, must have glossed over that paragraph.

      A terribly uninformed thing to say, Carson. Not just because it fails to understand the role of the DP (and the director, to an extent), but because it makes a whole heap of assumptions about which mistakes belong to whom.

    • Poe_Serling

      Several years back, I would occasionally bump into cinematographer Bojan Bazelli (PumpkinHead, Body Snatchers, The Ring). One day I asked him: If he ever considered jumping into the director’s chair?

      His response back then: Not really… he loved the process of working with the director in bringing their vision to the screen.

  • mulesandmud

    One of the many negative reviews:

    http://www.salon.com/2014/04/19/transcendence_and_hollywoods_bizarre_techno_idiocy/

    This one goes into more depth than usual about the weakness of the film’s ideas (and the way that weak ideas weaken characters and drama). It also thinks a bit about how/why hollywood tends to get technology so wrong.

    The irony of a filmmaker making a movie about the digital age while insisting it be shot on film is pretty brilliant. Sort of like hiring a Luddite to work at the Genius Bar.

    • JakeMLB

      Part of the issue is that TECHNOLOGY MOVES SO FAST these days that by the time a sci fi idea materializes on screen, it very well may be outdated. The author of the Salon article seems to have forgotten that it’s only very recently that government spying became a tangible threat to the general public. This project probably started 4+ years ago.

      Beyond that, simply put, it’s hard to translate complex science fiction ideas into timely visual films, partly because of how fast technology moves. Yes, it can work for hyper-realistic small-scale flicks like HER or GRAVITY, for large space operas like STAR TREK or TRON, or for testosterone actioners like DREDD or RIDDICK, but it seems that anything in between struggles to balance realism with suspension of disbelief. Films nowadays seem to require heavy doses of grit and realism which most science fiction has always relied on skirting.

      • mulesandmud

        Very fair point. However, if your speculative ideas run the risk of going stale in just three years, then perhaps you need to adopt a longer view, no?

        Had Transcendence come out three years ago, would we have called it ahead of its time? No chance. Had it come out last year, at the peak of Snowden, would we call it timely? Maybe, but it would still be timely and second-rate.

        • JakeMLB

          Sure, there were still issues with story and direction, I’m just wondering if this is the start of a new trend. A lot of recent sci fi actioners are falling short: OBLIVION, ELYSIUM, TRANSCENDENCE, AFTER EARTH, etc. but most of those suffered because of poor scripts so perhaps I’m a bit off. I’m just starting to see a trend towards hyper-realism that makes science fiction even harder to write.

          • Franchise Blueprints

            I don’t know about the other three movies you mentioned, but After Earth was always a nepotism vehicle for Jaden Smith. It never had the legs to stand as a sci-fi film let alone a regular movie. Coupled to the Hollywood rumor Will Smith only works with directors he can control. It was FUBAR central from jump street.

  • Midnight Luck

    From a gut reaction about why this thing failed, I think it is even more basic. Most people barely have any idea who an actor is, know nothing about the script, have never even read one, don’t know a single Directors name (other than Spielberg), don’t know the story behind the making of the movie, who came in to rewrite the script, the producers involved, etc. They know NOTHING about anything going on in or behind the scenes in Hollywood.

    So, it failed for really basic reasons.

    I saw the trailer, and I had no want to see the movie.

    I personally don’t normally let one thing decide if I do or don’t give it a try. I take into account the actors, the director, what I know about the story, etc. But come on, this trailer sucked so bad it made me want to firebomb Hollywood.

    The biggest problem was the stupidity of it all. While some sic-fi works, even though what it presents isn’t actually possible, it is just conceivable enough we can suspend our disbelief. But with this, having dialogue like “We can upload his consciousness into the computer” or “It’s Will, he’s alive!” are just plain retarded.

    Then, the real killer for me, was that they had to create a floating digital reconstruction of Depp’s face on the monitor so we could see him and interact with him. This is just horrible filmmaking. It makes it such lowbrow sci-fi, such cliche’d ridiculousness. I seriously felt like barfing the first time I saw that in the trailer. Why on earth would he “appear” with a face just like his own and “talk” to people on whatever monitor was in front of someone? And why is he “talking” through these things like a real person. I know all kinds of tech people out there will have all their reasons and explanations, but as a regular, non tech person, this was absolutely stupid. It reeks of “Movie Logic” so much I want to throw something at the screen. Can’t these creators have dug deeper and come up with something better?

    Take a movie like WAR GAMES for example. That worked, it took on a realistic, yet futuristic world, but Matthew Broderick interacts with the computer via the phone, and a computerized voice. Or even EAGLE EYE, same thing, a computerized voice. (Though Eagle Eye fell apart when the computer began being able to do things like break power lines from their electric towers so they fell and almost killed the main characters.)

    Seeing the trailer left me with no interest in ANYTHING going on in the movie and no want to find out. All I thought was – there has to be a better movie coming out to go see. As a person who sees so many movies a week or month I should have my own special discount pass, NOT going to a movie like this is a huge deal to me.

    Even my brother, a HUGE tech guy, a person who loves sci-fi, action flicks, tech geek kind of ideas, took one look at it and said “That looks terrible and ludicrous. Just awful.”

    I agreed whole heartedly.

  • Mike

    The problem was not the direction, I agree with everything else Carson said but the main problem (like someone else here said) was the fact that it was not clear who we were meant to be rooting for for half of the film.

    We establish RIFT as bad guys after the shooting, although their argument is actually pretty logical. Then the first thing Depp wants after waking in the computer is to be plugged into Wall Street for cash and control? That doesn’t make me want to root for him either. The scene with Mara telling Max about the chimp’s conscious being transferred into a computer makes you sympathise with RIFT further.

    That’s not to mention the part when we skip ahead two years and have 20 minutes of absolutely nothing happening, no story progression or anything. Just Depp talking about nano machines and healing people?!

    I just didn’t care about any of the characters at all. I didn’t care if they lived or died. This rendered the ‘twist’ at the end useless.

  • tokyoYR

    Truthfully I was never impressed by the screenplay and think a lot of people (maybe even you, Carson?) jumped on it because of word of mouth. Seems like a common Hollywood issue – people don’t want to take the time to read closely or think themselves, so they see the script through the lens they’ve been supplied with. I was confused about why it was met with so much acclaim.

  • NajlaAnn

    Yesterday we watched Transcendence and overall we enjoyed it – especially the sci-fi concept. Having said that, I came away with this gut feeling that something was missing and Evelyn had something to do with that. After reading your assessment, I realize it was that “EVELYN NEVER DOES ANYTHING!” and “… Evelyn is so unengaged….”, both not good, contributed to that gut feeling.

  • ripleyy

    This only teaches us that not everyone can direct, and that no matter what role you play, your directorial debut isn’t going to be the sunshine-and-rainbows you expect it will. The fact Pfister thought he could seamlessly go from Cinematography to Directing and have it go smoothly was a fool’s errand. Hopefully this will stop him in his tracks and he goes back doing what he’s good at.

    I mean, there is no shame in it at all. Some people are good at one thing, some aren’t. The only people who can seamlessly go from doing their day job to doing their feature film directing debut are Actors.

    It’s surprising why so many actors/actresses have had such success in pulling off their first film, and that’s because they understand other actors, they understand how to flesh out characters and when it comes to the technical side of things, they understand most of the basic directorial needs one must have in order to pull it off. Some may not succeed, but the ratio of those who pull it off are higher compared to those who don’t.

    So yeah, the script isn’t half the problem, which is a shame…but let’s be honest, it’ll be remade in 20 years, and by then, hopefully someone can get it right.

    • wlubake

      Pfister has both the nice and unfortunate issue of having his first directorial effort be a wide release starring Johnny Depp. Any director would dream of that, but it also means your rookie mistakes are amplified. I don’t know if I’d say Pfister should go back to just doing cinematography. Hopefully he’ll just keep getting better as a director and learn form his mistakes in this movie. Not like The Following was a flawless film for Nolan.

      • ripleyy

        That’s true. I suppose I judged him too harshly for mistakes I’m sure everyone goes through, which is simply beginner’s mistakes. Hopefully, like you said, his next effort will be smaller where he can really show us what he’s good at.

  • Midnight Luck

    This is a very interesting point.
    If what you are saying is true (and I am not suggesting that it isn’t, I don’t know, so am taking your word for it), that it was more of an orchestrated writing job for a Producer and then a would be Director, well, I can see why it would be so bad. Almost all the movies and scripts I have read and watched, which were manufactured for someone in this way, have been just trash.
    I believe it is because the writers heart isn’t into it. Someone else’s idea, someone else’s guidance, no idea conjured up by the writer (except maybe a scene or two here or there), just leaves an emotionless, heartless bunch of words. Purely a paycheck, usually equals, a story just worthy enough to get by.
    Paycheck writing doesn’t tend to be creative writing.

  • John Bradley

    Man, WTF Carson, you just ruined my weekend movie plans! I was looking forward to this one……oh well=

  • Midnight Luck

    I think the only way you can pull off an up-to-date tech movie about things like the internet or sic-fi antics like time travel or man-in-the-machine futurism is by making it more old school.

    We can all buy into it easier. I think there is a huge problem with trying to display visually what we all already know and see on our computers in a believable way, while also making it impressive and futuristic. We can’t buy into it. AND, it instantly becomes so dated that by the time it is released, it very likely will SEEM dated beyond recognition. Definitely within a year of its release people will look back and say “why did we think that was a good idea?” It will just look horribly dated, as well as, most likely, stupid. I think this movie suffers from all that in spades.

    If you can tell the same story using a low-tech, high-tech form like 12 MONKEYS or BRAZIL, where everything is done in a semi SteamPunk fashion, utilizing what looks like garbage or left over parts have been used to create the technology, somehow it works. You can pull it off. The more futuristic the fantasy elements being used for the technology, the more ridiculous it becomes.

    • Franchise Blueprints

      The more futuristic the fantasy elements being used for the technology, the more ridiculous it becomes.

      To a degree. If you take a movie like The Fifth Element it combined sci-fi, fantasy, and adventure and it worked.

      • Midnight Luck

        Yes I agree. Loved 5th Element. That setup worked for the most part. However, a lot of what they were doing still used old time tech or fantastical elements. The cave where they have to use the earth wind and fire elements to activate it, mixed with alien beings who still seemed crude in how they were portrayed, yet everything felt like it was futuristic.

        I am the first to admit, much of the bias might be what I find plausible, yet others might be fine with whatever future tech is created for the movie.

        Take Minority Report. The glass panel, floating memory video graphics were pretty cool, and the etched ball that rolls down and tells them who to eliminate, works. Yet the three individuals who “see” the future and are kept in a semi comatose state, stretched the plausibility of the science to me. They “jack in” to their thoughts to be able to see the future. These beings are mystical yet hooked to electrodes, and the cops have figured out how to create tech that can read all this, and display it as video graphics that can be played, rewound, fast forwarded, etc. I had troubles with that part.

        I believe, ultimately, that 5th Element worked because it wasn’t couched in some synthetic yet “real” future. It wasn’t about the internet, or something from this age, morphed into a future version. It was a very fantasy setup. But still they added things like the old flying boat he eats noodles from. Cigarettes that are all filters. I believe since it mixed a bunch of old school things with a very unreal fantasy future, it worked.

        Could just be me.

        • Franchise Blueprints

          I believe, ultimately, that 5th Element worked because it wasn’t couched in some synthetic yet “real” future.

          I agree the world building wasn’t based on the stereotypical vision of the future.

          Minority Report was more of a more serious sci-fi film. They had to create speculative bleeding edge technology and tone it down slightly. I see your point about cops creating predicative technology.

          I saw awhile back some FBI special concerning this software company from Canada that built a program based on FBI data that could predict certain crime patterns. Now I’m having difficulty remembering which came first the movie or the FBI special.

          Minority Report isn’t that far of a stretch, because they used probability math to triangulate Osama’s location. So it lends a little credibility to the basic premise of Minority Report.

  • Franchise Blueprints

    Black List only lost its magic after writers were allowed to host their own script. Now blcklst.com has a new function. Its more about writers workshops and screenwriting fellowships. BitterScriptReader is a prime example of someone who worked his industry contacts and got highly favorable reviews added to his positive promotion of the website. The Black List now is more similar to an un-official IMDb. A place where writers can say I had my script hosted on blcklst.com.

  • spoilerdirector

    I felt the movie bombed because it never felt like there were any stakes. Will was somehow going to take over the world, but it wasn’t clear how he was going to do it and the only people who seemed to care were RIFT and a few FBI agents. And literally YEARS would pass in the movie before something happened, which eliminated any sense of a ticking clock.

  • kidbaron

    Wasn’t too blown away by the script. It just seemed flat and forgettable. It was predictable and didn’t draw me into the new world it was trying to present. I liked the twist that the machine was actually trying to do good by but by the end I just didn’t care. How do I know… Well, I read DRIVE, CRAZY, STUPID, LOVE and THE EQUILIZER around the same time or even earlier and those scripts still resonate. Heck for Drive and Crazy they resonate better than the movies.

  • Chris Stuckmann

    Beautiful review, and not just because it mirrors my thoughts, but because you brought up the point about spec scripts. If it’s well received, I don’t understand why filmmakers feel the need to change everything. It’d be great if the real lesson that’s learned is not to botch great spec scripts.