‘Transcendence’ and Johnny Depp Nanobots: Where Do You Draw a Line for Believability?

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Believability is in the eye of the beholder.

In the final third of Transcendence, the directorial debut of Christopher Nolan's longtime director of photographer, Wally Pfister, logic is thrown out the window in favor of sci-fi bombast. The foundation to take the crazy leap is established: After anti-tech terrorists assassinate Dr. Will Caster (Johnny Depp) at point blank range, his wife Evelyn (Rebecca Hall) uploads his consciousness to a supercomputer. The dream-come-true resurrection is short-lived; Will's upgraded processing power enables him to filter into the Internet and cull from every informational resource imaginable, turning him into a power-hungry brainiac bent on cleansing the world of its flaws. Thus, a brazen showdown ensues between Will's mind-controlled pawns (tapped in via nanobot implants) and the U.S. government's analog soldiers.

Pfister's mix of grandiose thrills and postulations on the dangerous future of artificial intelligence felt like distinct, uneven halves, but the build up was never worth an eye roll. Sure, why couldn't Depp's human/computer combo sneak into Wall Street files and insider trade his way to $60 million in a matter of hours? It makes total sense that he invented a new form of building block that allowed him to instantaneously 3D print a field of solar panels. And of course those nanobots could dip themselves into water, condense into clouds, and cue rain right on Will's command — he's a supercomputer! When I left my screening of Transcendence, I was met with opposition to my honkey-dory, this-all-makes-sense attitude.

“Nanobots can't do that!” screamed one person who knew a lot more about nanobot technology than I did.

“Ridiculous,” someone said with absolute authority.

This worried me. Was I off base indulging in Transcendence's pseudo-science, which seemed thoughtfully extrapolated from geeky reading I'd done on artificial intelligence and the technological singularity? Or was I a dunce who bought into trite, tech-speak tropes that even I had to admit didn't stick the landing when it spiraled out of control into a Michael Bay movie?

“Believability” is an uphill battle that's becoming steeper as audiences become more like Dr. Will Caster, feeding upon incalculable amounts of information and media. A movie must sell its conceit and the rules of its world in order for us to invest. Loose ends and lapses in logic will be fussed with like hole in a sweater, growing larger and larger until you can't wear the damn thing in public. Man of Steel suffered this fate: Opening weekend reactions were full of praise for Zack Snyder's comic book epic. Three weeks later, Twitter chatter couldn't shut up about how many people died in the wanton destruction of Superman's battle with General Zod.

The over-analysis of film has become entertainment in itself. The “Everything Wrong with ______” YouTube series rips apart the seams of major blockbusters. Honest Trailers are equally clinical. Then there are the websites devoted to logging plot holes — at least that involves watching the movies. Even Neil deGrasse Tyson jumped in on the trend, disparaging Gravity for its wrongful depictions of astrophysics. Transcendence is a movie guaranteed to earn itself an expert takedown. Its speculative nature isn't trying to be right, it's trying to jump off existing knowledge and blend it with imagination. Sci-fi. Fiction.

Transcendence is successful because it's consistent from start to finish. The rules of actual physics could be broken, but not the ones laid down by Depp's technobabble in the first act of the film. I found my own tolerance for believability tested in the recent Captain America: The Winter Soldier. When “Marvel Cinematic Universe”  teamed up Iron Man, Captain America, Thor and the rest of heroes together for 2012's The Avengers, it became clear each franchise was a puzzle piece to a greater storytelling effort. With this knowledge lingering in the back of my mind, it struck me as odd that Captain America would fly solo while battling infiltrating neo-Nazis and their arsenal of flying gunners. Sure, he had Anthony Mackie's Falcon, but how about Tony Stark or the God of Thunder? What were they up to?

Moments after that line of internal questioning, I told myself to shut up. Not because salaries and contractual obligations prevent Robert Downey Jr. from flying in and helping save the day, but because the rest of Captain America: The Winter Soldier earned the right to turn Steve Rogers into a singular hero. That's what the preceding hour and a half set out to do. Winter Soldier breaks the rules in the hopes of entertaining us.

Movies aren't off the hook for being believable. Nothing should be branded as “dumb fun” or “turn your brain off” — we shouldn't, we won't, we can't. But not every film needs to tie itself down to the realism that provokes memories of factual education. Transcendence could be a better movie if it let the freak flag fly, introduced Will Caster's experimental uploading process, and turned it into Johnny Depp's own Matrix franchise. Or scaled it down to its most haunting beats, an experimental, metaphorical tone poem akin to Scarlett Johansson's recent horror flick Under the Skin. The truth is, most movies are too realistic, too grounded in Nolan-esque grit. Film is a medium where anything goes, but it rarely does. By sticking to worlds that look like our own, follow all the same rules, audiences inevitably question the slight deviations made for dramatic storytelling.

Believability is in the eye of the beholder. Even knowing that Transcendence is a pseudo-intellectual rip-off of G.I. Joe: Rise of the Cobra, Pfister's filmmaking and his ensemble's conviction kept me on board. No so for the skeptical, who watched the film veer too closely to reality to excuse its fantastical detours. But does that make it a bad movie? Only if you're looking for real world logic.

Image via Warner Bros.