Synopsis: A scientific genius’s pursuit of knowledge evolves into an omnipresent thirst for power.
Release Date: April 18, 2014 MPAA Rating: PG-13
Genre(s): Science Fiction, Drama
The idea at the center of Transcendence is an intriguing one. What if, through the power of super computers and a little brain scanning, a human could evolve to become something more? What if they could “transcend” to become a living form of artificial intelligence? We’ve all at least considered that idea, and Transcendence tries to explore it.
However, what Transcendence the film strives for in terms of entertainment and intrigue, and what it inevitably delivers are not one in the same. Too often it shuns believability in favor of capturing those “cinematic” moments, but unfortunately those moments are too silly to make Transcendence anything more than a disappointment – a hopeful union of blockbuster and high concept sci-fi wasted on a stellar cast.
Johnny Depp plays Will Caster, an artificial intelligence researcher who, along with his wife Evelyn (Rebecca Hall), believes not only that transcendence is possible, but that it will improve the world, curing diseases, healing the planet, and making our lives better. The Casters are not alone in this belief either, they along with some highly intelligent scientists and computer programmers, are on the cusp of achieving transcendence, and so they have drawn the ire of a major anti-technology group called R.I.F.T.
R.I.F.T. believes that transcendence will lead to nothing but bad things for the population, as it puts a single, uncontrollable A.I. in charge of the entire world’s Internet based infrastructure. They’re not afraid to use radical means to make sure Caster doesn’t achieve his goal either. In the group’s attempt to stop Caster, by killing him, they actually push his and Evelyn’s work forward, forcing them to try to transcend Will’s consciousness before he passes away. As you might expect, Evelyn, along with the Casters’ family friend Max (Paul Bettany), is successful, but the two find that Will’s transcendence might not necessarily have been the right thing to do. In fact, aside from Evelyn, who is willfully ignorant of the dangers associated with giving Will’s A.I. complete control, Max, his researchers, and R.I.F.T. discover that transcendence might pose a huge threat to our very independence.
As Transcendence progresses from Will’s initial transcendence to his and Evelyn’s development of an autonomous society it begins to explore some pretty thought provoking ideas, including our society’s over reliance on the Internet and the nature of a self-aware artificial intelligence. But it does so without asking the hard questions. In a way, it’s as if Transcendence wants to reap the rewards of having explored a complex technology-based idea without doing the actual legwork. It’s too dialogue heavy to be considered a blockbuster or an action film, and too bare when it comes to meaningful discourse that it doesn’t work as a straight drama either. It lies somewhere in the middle, tonally, and as a result Transcendence comes across as a dull, lame duck attempt at a think piece, without the actual thinking. And then, when the film starts to build off Caster’s transcendent state by making him/it more villainous, it treads some extremely goofy territory.
To make matters worse, Transcendence boasts an excellent cast across the board. Of particular note is Rebecca Hall as the conflicted, yet devoted, Evelyn, and Paul Bettany as Max. The only real disappointment as far as the acting is concerned is Johnny Depp’s performance as Max Caster. While Depp is usually the most vibrant part of a movie, here he is surprisingly dull. Obviously, part of that has to do with his portrayal of an emotionless A.I., but it still feels like Depp phoned this one in. Aside from that, the film is bursting with top tier actors, all working to elevate a mediocre script. It’s like having overcooked filet mignon – you know these actors are doing great work, but it’s in service of a lackluster story.
Some might enjoy the light sci-fi ideas explored in Transcendence, but not enough to say the film is enjoyable or worth recommending. The film’s flippant attitude towards its subject matter is not just distracting, but it makes for a laughable series of third act developments. More importantly, Transcendence is not engaging enough to override some very silly plot points, and it struggles to find focus once Will begins to transform into Hal from 2001: A Space Odyssey. The phrase “wasted potential” most aptly applies to Transcendence, and it’s true across the board. From the cast to the crew to the complex concepts that fuel the story, Transcendence could have been an insightful and entertaining film. Instead, it’s just a disappointing one.
While Transcendence does have its individual strengths, namely acting and directing, the writing on the film is certainly not up to par. Early on, screenwriter Jack Paglen attempts to root his tale in realistic ideas, but he turns a blind eye to any questions or logical inconsistencies that might arise. The concept of Transcendence may be a possibility, albeit a far-flung one, but Paglan fails to provide a convincing world to support that idea. Instead, he decided to pick and choose what elements to root in realism and which to simply let go unexplained. As a result, the script takes an incredibly silly turn about halfway through and never finds its way back.
Transcendence is an interesting concept packaged inside an uninteresting story, a wasted idea without any tangible weight in the real world. It’s the type of eye roll inducing material that comes from C-grade films that deal with computers, A.I., etc. in a superficial manner.
For his directorial debut, longtime Christopher Nolan cinematographer Wally Pfister does a solid job of bringing Transcendence to the screen. Like with the acting, it’s hard to fault Pfister for giving his all to lackluster material, especially when his particular duties were adequately fulfilled. He gets excellent performances from his actors, constructs the film’s story competently and in a way that is easy to follow, and the overall look of the film is as crisp as any of Nolan’s previous films. It’s a shame Pfister couldn’t have chosen a more engaging film to cut his teeth on, as the man clearly has talent. And his work is strong enough here that you want to see what he can do with better material.
Cast and Crew
- Director(s): Wally Pfister
- Screenwriter(s): Jack Paglen
- Cast: Johnny Depp (Will Caster)Rebecca Hall (Evelyn Caster)Paul Bettany (Max Waters) Cillian Murphy (Agent Buchanan)Kate Mara (Bree)Cole Hauser (Colonel Stevens)Morgan Freeman (Joseph Tagger)
- Editor(s): David Rosenbloom
- Cinematographer: Jess Hall
- Production Designer(s):
- Costume Designer:
- Casting Director(s):
- Music Score: Mychael Danna
- Music Performed By:
- Country Of Origin: USA