Thursday, 14 April 2016



Today I thought I'd do something different. Rather than analyse an unproduced screenplay, I will analyse the film Transcendence. 

Transcendence has a great concept -  singularity - the point when computers become self aware. Essentially when AI computers learn how to think for themselves. 

I'm no expert in the field, but from what I've read online, this idea is no longer just a sci-fi concept but could - theoretically - become a reality. 


Transcendence cost $100 million to make. Normally when a studio puts that kind of money into making a film - it expects to make at least $300 mill at the box office. 

The reason for this is the general rule off thumb that whatever your film's budget is, you need to triple that at the box office to JUST TO BREAK EVEN. 

So this film was a financial failure. 

It's got a 6.3 on IMDB - which isn't too bad - but one thing I've noticed with IMDB is that where once it was fairly on the money with its ratings - recently - it's often way off.

Rotten Tomatoes has this film at 20% - which is waaaaay more accurate.

So let's look at what this film did wrong.

The point of this review isn't to point out how bad this film is, it's to be constructive and LEARN from its mistakes.


The concept is actually pretty strong - an AI computer threatens to take over the world and potentially wipe out the human race. 

How did this film fail to deliver on that idea?

The first MAJOR problem with this film was the lack of --


Tell me ONE thing that Johnny Depp's character did that made you like him?

That's right - nothing. 

He's a brilliant scientist. Good for him. That doesn't make me like him. We like heroes who DO things that make us like them.

Okay, so look at the other characters in the film. Name for me ONE character who actually DID one thing that made us like them?

That's right - not one character went out of their way to do something to make us like them.

With no empathy, there is no VICARIOUS connection between the audience and the film. With no connection between the viewer and the subject matter - we're not going to have an emotional response to the film. 

That was bullet hole #1. Lack of empathy. 

The second major problem with this film - was the lack of --


Johnny Depp didn't have a flaw. He was a successful scientist, going about his business until one day he gets shot. 

When your hero doesn't have a flaw, there's no inner journey for them to go on. If there's no inner journey, again, we don't connect with the characters or the story. The entire film becomes spectacle. 

Have you ever watched fireworks for a really long time?

I have. Fireworks are mesmerising for about 5-10 minutes. After that, it gets really boring, really quickly. You get the analogy. 

So that's bullet hole #2. 

What was the --


Not until Depp gets shot do we have a goal of some sort. But even then, what are the stakes of the goal?

The goal is to upload Depp's conscience into a computer. But what happens if they fail? Depp's gone for ever. Now if the film had spent the last 20 minutes making me LOVE Depp - by showing me all the amazing altruistic things he does, then maybe I would have cared if his conscience was uploaded or not. 

But that's not what happened. This film asked me to care about the death of a man I hardly knew, and had no reason to like. 

Now, had Depp's survival been essential OR something really bad would happen - say - there were 100 people trapped somewhere and only Depp could save them - then we have stakes - the lives of 100 other people. 

But as it stands there is no goal.

Even when Depp's conscience is loaded into the computer, the only goal is for the antagonists - the supposedly 'evil' lady who wants to kill Depp. 

Her goal is to kill him before he becomes an all powerful AI. 

So that's bullet hole #3 - The 'hero' doesn't really have a goal. 


I just mentioned this with regards to the goal, but it's worth a stand alone point being made. 

Stakes really drive a story. This is ultimately a story about the possible destruction of humankind, so, yes, in that sense the stakes are really high. But we never really get to see the threat. 

In the film Independence Day, we see the gigantic alien spaceship hovering over Washington DC, we can SEE the thing that threatens to wipe out mankind. 

Here, in Transcendence we never SEE the threat. 

We're told by way of clunky dialogue that Depp could wipe out all of mankind if he wanted to, but we never SEE him using his powers for evil. 

Not even when the finale rolls around do we see Depp get mad and use his powers for evil. Sure he uses them to defend himself, when the army are attacking, but I considered that reasonable, given the circumstances.

So that's bullet hole #4. Lack of clearly defined stakes.


This is another really big problem with this film. 

Drama is conflict. If you have two people in a room who agree with each other, you are guaranteed to have a really dull scene. 

Put two people in a room that disagree with each other and you will have a really interesting scene. Especially if you throw in a little thing we like to call --


A scene objective is SOMETHING that ONE of the characters WANTS to get from one of the other characters. 

When your scene doesn't have conflict, OR a scene objective - well, then you've got a film like Transcendence. 

To be fair, not every scene lacked for a scene objective or conflict, but I would say over 70% of the scenes did.

There really shouldn't be ONE scene in your film that lacks conflict or a scene objective. Not one. 

So that's bullet hole #5 (conflict) and #6 (scene objectives).

They are the core, fundamental problems with this film.

It is insane to think that 6 of the most important principles of film making were completely ignored in this film. 

I can excuse a film that gets made on sub $1million if it lacks a few of these rules, because, hey, it's likely the film makers are still learning the ropes.

But when you have Depp starring and a $100m budget, you really have no excuse to ignore these 6 principles of film making and story telling. 

So far I've been talking about the STORY.

Let's look at 


It was directed by Wally Pfister. This guy has 42 cinematography credits on films as big as Dark Knight Rises. This guy knows how to light a scene.

What he doesn't understand is how to tell a story.

There is a HUGE difference between being able to create a beautiful image and tell a story through images. 

One requires an intricate knowledge of light.

The other requires an intricate knowledge of story. 

Two very different things.

Let me break down the rookie mistakes Wally made.

There's a maxim in film directing and writing that goes - 'start late, finish early'.

What that means is cut the bullshit out. 

If the importance of a scene is a key piece if dialogue between two people, start as close as you can to that piece of dialogue, then finish that scene as soon as the dialogue has run. 

Wally seems to think the opposite.

Throughout the entire film he constantly had actors walking through doors, walking down hallways, driving in cars, walking down a street, sleeping, sitting.

There were over 50 instances where a character walked through a door, then down a hallway, then finally reached the person they wanted to talk to.

What do we learn about the character walking down a hallway, and through a door? Nothing. All that's interesting is the dialogue. So why not cut straight to that?

In the opening of the film we watch Will (Depp) and Evelyn getting dressed and having a nice conversation about nothing. 

Later Evelyn says she is going to turn PINN off, we then get three shots of her walking down hallways and through doorways before she is in the room where she can turn PINN off. Why not just cut straight there?

We have a montage of them setting up the lab where they're going to upload Will's conscience. Why do we need to see them building it? What do we learn? Why not cut straight into the lab already built.  -- Remember - START LATE FINISH EARLY.


This is the next thing I want to bring up. This is always the fault of the director. This is the ONE thing that the director is supposed to be there to control. The actor's performance. 

Often, the character of Evelyn was over the top. Getting unnecessarily upset and yelling when it wasn't needed or justified. 

Now when you're directing it's hard to know how far to let an actor go. It's often not until you get into the edit and your scene has context that you can really gauge how you want the actor's performance to be.

How to solve this? Shoot multiple takes with DIFFERENT performances. Get three different levels of the same performance - 1) soft and subtle, 2) medium intensity. 3) intense. 

Then when you're in the edit you have choices. This is a directing tip 101.


This film also had several logic bullet holes. 

The 'evil guys' can track Max down to a bar, but they can't track him down to the warehouse he was in.

If they can track him to a bar, they can track him to a warehouse. There are several other logic fails in this film. Too many to mention.


There's also the issue of POV.

Who's film is this?

Most people would say it's Depp's film, 'cause he's the biggest actor. But that is wrong. If anything, this is Evelyn's film. We see and experience the film mostly through her eyes. 

If this film was told entirely through Depp's POV. Then we would have cared way more for Depp and his plight. 


There was also repetition of information beats.

This is when we have just seen something happen in one scene, then in the next scene, one character tells another character something that just happened in the previous scene. 

That's bad directing and story telling. 

Never do this. Instead, cut straight to the moment AFTER the new character has learned of the information, and SHOW their reaction to this new information.


This is a major problem for MOST rookie directors. They think in terms of Wide, Mid and Close Up. 

Look at films made by Paul Thomas Anderson - while his ability to tell a good story has dropped off over his most recent films - his ability to keep the camera moving has not. PTA is famous for his long one-shots. 

Think about it. How do we see life?

Do we see life in a series of Wides, Mids and Close ups? Or do we see it as one long continuous one-shot?

Think about that. 


B - Roll is the footage that the SECOND UNIT shoot. These mostly don't involve the principle actors. It will be shots of the crowd, shots of animals, streets, sunsets etc... 

Go through this film and count every time it uses B-Roll footage. I swear that at least 30% of this film is B-Roll footage. 

There's no golden number for what percentage your film should be B-Roll - but I'm going to create a magic number right now - less than 2% of your film should be B-Roll. 

And this...

... is where I will leave the analysis of this film. 

I hope, that as aspiring screenwriters and directors, you can learn something from the mistakes Transcendence made.