We revisit the 2012 Black List for this week’s review. I would claim that I was desperately seeking solace in a year of scripts that entertain me [for a change], but the truth is… I am simply trying to be relevant by following the release schedule of major studios. (1) Had The Fault in our Stars been slated for April 18th [instead of Juneteenth], we’d be looking at that 2012 Black Lister instead of Trancscendence.
1. Is the dialogue (a) free of exposition and (b) rich in subtext? This will include (c) unique voices for each character. (each part worth 10 points)
Part A) [Let me first note the PDF of this script is another of those that can’t be copied from, and I have yet to invest in the Adobe upgrade that would make that copying trick possible. This means, we will have to make do with referring to page numbers without the accompanying text.]
If you’ve read a few of my prior reviews, then you know I have this theory about exposition which states:
No script NEEDS exposition.
I used to qualify this statement when it came to science fiction scripts because I felt the amount of world building required in this genre allowed for reasonable qualification. Then my reviews began to accumulate and I became less sure that my science fiction asterisk was really necessary. Perhaps, we should plant our audiences on an expositional iceberg no matter what genre we choose.
I decide to leave the theoretical resolution of this conundrum for Bowdlerizing Kant 2. However, my intuition tells me the more intolerant stance is correct. Wash your script of exposition and it will live longer in the audience’s mind. In other words, my intuition is telling me:
Exposition is inversely proportional to resonance.
Using that last sentence as harbinger, I predict Transcendence will struggle to be remembered even if it does well at the box office. There is a lot of exposition in this script.
The cycle begins on page 12 when Max and Will debate the possibility of a machine contracting legitimate human consciousness. Max says this isn’t possible because we don’t even know how to describe [scientifically] our own mental states. Will disagrees, basically for no stated reason other than that he has agreed to disagree with Max on this for a long time.
Immediately after their argument Will is shot. We follow up with some more expo about the bullet and polonium poisoning. Then we’re given two straight pages of movie-world information [18-19] in which we learn about the benefits of nanotechnology and discuss the physical possibility of uploading Will’s consciousness to the PINN.
So far, we’re only on 19 and almost half the script has been world-building inserted into otherwise unmotivated dialogue. After this poor start, the script rarely exits the Exposition Express:
3 out of 10 points.
Part B) Almost any time a script struggles with A, it also struggles with B. If you’re not trying to actively avoid exposition, it’s not likely you’re actively trying to add subtext. This script is not an exception to the usual rule.
I will say [in defense of the script] that I feel like this draft is an early draft. That said, however, this “early draft” was good enough to get on The Black List. So, I am willing to judge it according to that high standard. In other words, I do not expect a script which multiple industry people selected as among the best of the 50,000 scripts written in 2012 to be at an intermediate level [or lower] when it comes to subtext. (2)
My expectations were disappointed.
There is a little bit of writerly manipulation around the idea that loving something means setting it free, but not enough to offset the legion of lines that mean exactly what you first think they mean.
4 out of 10 points.
Part C) The character individuation is passable. I know what each character sounds like anyway. Unfortunately, the dialogue just isn’t very good. It’s hard on the ear. As I often say, this is because dialogue that isn’t hard on the ear is primarily a function of low exposition and high subtext. Both of those are things the author of Transcendence does not supply.
On the strength of the fact that I always know who the characters are I will [generously] go:
7 out of 10 points.
2. Do the first 10 pages make me want to read to Fade Out? (20 points)
For me, the first 10 seesaw dramatically between things I liked and one thing I could not stand.
I hate the flash forward that opens the story. I’ve been to this post-apocalyptic environment the author flash forwards to 100’s of times. [Most recently in the pilot for The Walking Dead.] I’m tired of it. Don’t open your script with post-apocalyptic environments. There is no mystery left in the device. In fact, be even better than that and…
Don’t open your script with a flash forward, period.
On the other hand, I loved the way we are [seemingly] randomly introduced to major RIFT terrorist Bree as a cake-baker. I didn’t catch on to her culpability in the death of Joseph Tagger’s co-workers until well after they had all died from eating the poisoned birthday cake she made.
I also enjoyed the exposition about “the singularity” on page 8. This idea is interesting [I can’t decide how interesting] and I’m glad to see it enter the popular culture by way of the cinema. I will have to remember this moment later on when I’m writing an essay on the importance of spec screenplays as Idea-Dissemination-Machines.
Summed to a score, and low because of the annoying flash forward:
14 out of 20 points.
3. Does the structure of the story have (a) a suitable number of reveals (b) an engine that fits its protagonist (c) a pinch point the engine funnels toward and (d) a thematic underpinning which, by Fade Out, explains why THIS engine and THIS protagonist were the subject of THIS story. (parts a and d worth 10 points, parts b and c worth 5)
Part A) After the first 15 pages [by the time Will has gotten radiation poisoning from the polonium dipped bullet which went through his shoulder at the singularity conference] the script slows to a crawl in terms of reveals.
This story is packed with storyquarks at the beginning and end [like plotpoint bookends] and not much goes on in between. For a long time, we explore the same “total-surveillance” idea over and over again. Will-in-the-machine acts increasingly like a totalitarian dictator bent on world domination. (2) There is topicality to this lengthy middle section [NSA are you listening, and if you aren’t then: are you trying to be ironic?], but nothing striking or original.
5 out of 10 points.
Part B) Finding the engine is a challenge because [I think] finding the protagonist is a challenge. In my opinion, you could make equally good arguments for:
The character of Will gets the poster-art and the A list star, so I believe the authors mean for us to go with him. Max gets the flash forward and the actual “character arc” so maybe we are meant to go with him. But, Evelyn is the heart of the script– primarily because all the men are in love with her. Is she a manic-pixie-dreamgirl? Absolutely. I’d classify her as a genius-pixie-dreamgirl, but who’s really paying attention. The fact is every guy in the audience has some unspecified wish-fulfillment scenario in which Evelyn falls in love with him.
This protagonist convolution is saccharine at best. It does not satisfy. It does not yield an identifiable engine.
2 out of 5 points.
Part C) The pinch point for Transcendence comes on page 95 when Evelyn says:
If you love me, you’ll respect me
enough to let me go.
This is the moment that defines the script. Will’s choice shapes the theme of the script, just as we would expect from a pinch point.
5 out of 5 points.
Part D) So, what is that theme? I believe a very strong case could be made for:
If you love something, set it free.
Will and Evelyn both prove their love by releasing the other one. Will let’s Evelyn go at the pinch point we just talked about from page 95. Evelyn lets Will go 10 pages later when she says:
I’ll inject infected nanotechnology
into myself, carry the virus to the
machine and upload it at the
And by that she means, upload the virus into Will. She has realized [turns out wrongly] that Will-in-the-machine is not her Will. By agreeing to upload the virus, Evelyn is agreeing to let go of her memory of the Will she loves.
BUT, this is not how the script ends. Transcendence has a final reveal [if you read footnote 2 you know I think this reveal is a deplorable cheat] that I feel changes the theme to:
Humanity is incapable of believing in its best version of its self.
Now, that is a theme which is decidedly in my wheelhouse, so: why do I write with such distaste bleeding through my fingertips? Because nowhere in the script before Will says this on page 124:
is there any indication that Will-in-the-machine is good. Up until he “confesses” to Evelyn the nanotechnology is healing the planet there is ZERO indication the nanotechnology is healing the planet.
If that were not enough to grade this theme harshly, there is another, more powerful, indictment.
In order for this theme to be valid given the premises of the movie, (3) it ALSO HAS TO BE TRUE that everything the NSA has done up until now in the War on Terror is okay. This is because their methods derived from a belief they could act for the greater good by subverting the law based on acquiring better intelligence than ordinary laws allow.
Will grants the NSA immunity in all its operations because, during the boring middle section of Transcendence, Will-in-the-machine hunts down a lot of the terrorists involved in RIFT. He violates most of the constitution and half the bill of rights in effecting this hunt, and justifies his actions based on his heightened awareness of the situation.
IN THE END, we learn Will was always aiming for our greater good. The message in these dots is:
If your intelligence is accurate then you may act on it however you want.
Anyone can see that statement follows the form of logic without containing its essence. When Will grants validity to particular Machiavellians, he grants it to all Machiavellians.
0 out of 10 points.
4. Is there (a) anything unique in the story being told or (b) in the writing itself? (each part worth 5 points)
Part A) I like two things about this story:
1. It centers on an entity with surreal [or superhuman] intelligence who wants to act for the good of mankind. Every other tale about the surpassing of man by machine assumes the machine will try and kill us. This is bizarre to me. You would think that we humans would realize barbarism is a DISTINCTLY human characteristic. It’s quite possible we are the only versions of intelligence that actively want to kill other versions of intelligence. I am the world’s most concentrated humanist, for sure, but I am aware of our defects as a species enough to know that:
Increasing intelligence necessarily parallels increasing regard for intelligent life.
Let’s realize the core of humanism is NOT limited to human beings. You can be a humanist about intelligent machines too. We’ll coin a word and call it humechinism.
2. As I said earlier, I am happy to see the idea of the singularity enter the public domain.
5 out of 5 points.
Part B) I hate to rail against an author, but I don’t think the writing in this script is very good. There is little to celebrate outside of the two things I mentioned in Part A:
1 out of 5 points.
5. Are we inspired, for however brief a time, to live in harmony with the theme of the script? (10 points)
I celebrate the attempt the author made with his theme, even if it fell through the floor of functionality. The script is correct, we humans are not good at seeing our best selves. We revel in our felonies and misdemeanors and ignore our everday heroes and saints. Yes we are still a world of NSA abuses, war, and starvation, but we are also a world that is moving, however slowly, toward equality for all. Someday, there will be:
7 out of 10 points.
Total Score: 53
1. This another of my “found” reviews. This explains the anachronistic talk about studio release schedules.
2. One Wonders if this “early draft” would have made The Black List if the title page said something other than Untitled Wally Pfister Project. Had it been called Just Untitled or if they had come up with Transcendence back in 2012, would industry insiders have selected it as a favorite? If, in other words, the script didn’t come with opening page knowledge that someone as “important” as Wally Pfister were attached to it, would it have still have made Mr. Leonard’s List? I’ll let the final score I give the script be my answer.
3. Were I in the mood to be generous about this script, I could count this as subtext. The problem is that the final reveal in the story subverts this subtextual meme. It does not intensify it. This is not the way subtext and theme are supposed to interact in order to create resonance. In other words, the final reveal is far more a DEUS EX MACHINA than it is a summation of the theme as it was revealed through the subtext. In other, other words, the final reveal is a massive cheat.
4. Remember, I think the theme of a movie is the conclusion of a deductive argument. The plotpoints are the premises. And one can judge the empirical [or functional] validity of the argument a script makes by its resonance through time.