Transcendence is not as bad you’ve heard, currently holding 19% on Rotten Tomatoes, but that does not necessarily make it a good film.
Wally Pfister – Oscar-winning and frequent cinematographer to Christopher Nolan – first-time directs a film that asks a myriad of interesting questions but ultimately spirals to a down right silly resolution.
Max Waters (Paul Bettany) walks the streets of a once vibrant Californian town now devoid of electricity and technology. The opening voice-over hints at an event that wiped out the modern age and ushered in pre-Edison chaos. Cut to five years earlier: Dr. Will Caster (Johnny Depp), along with wife Evelyn (Rebecca Hall) and friend Max, is on the verge of a major scientific breakthrough: creating a true artificial intelligence that is completely self-aware. Unfortunately for Caster, and a collection of other scientists on similar paths, a cyber-terrorist organization know as RIFT – led by Bree (Kate Mara) — orchestrates a series of synchronized attacks that destroy years of research and kill many involved. Dr. Caster is mortally wounded during one of these attacks, stricken with radiation poisoning. In an effort to keep his consciousness alive, Evelyn and Max convert Caster’s mind into source code before his death and eventually upload him onto the Internet. Hot on the trail of RIFT is fellow scientist and friend Joseph (Morgan Freeman) and government Agent Buchanan (Cillian Murphy); but once Caster becomes sentient, the two turn to RIFT’s aid in order to take him and wife Evelyn down.
It is evident that Pfister knows how to visually frame a scene, as Transcendence is strikingly beautiful and grounds the technology in reality by presenting a film that looks so real. Inspired production design, vibrant colors, and deftly conceived shots introduce a fully realized world. The cast, for the most part, does their best with the material, particularly Rebecca Hall, who is arguably the most fleshed-out character. Depp, however, offers a skyped-in phoned-in performance, never appearing to fully embrace the dialogue or understand the film he is in. Rarely emoting or demonstrating the intense loss he describes to Bettany, he is the perfect robot in a film that requires so much more.
The first forty-five minutes of Transcendence is not simply beautiful, but suspenseful, and engaging. The problem occurs when the script descends into a Lawnmower Man meets Maximum Overdrive horror film that plays on our fear of those who attempt to recreate a corporeal God. Should we allow a sentient being to advance our race and improve on our Earth if it requires each of us to tap into a collective that may hinder our free will?
Spike Jonze’s remarkable 2013 film Her asked similar questions on the relationship between technology and the human race to exceedingly better results, relying on the “less is more” philosophy — an adage Pfister abandons for the more Michael Bay appropriate “more is more.” There are so many characters in Transcendence that the two-hour running time is insufficient to flush any out. Most become caricatures or archetypes of “science is bad,” “science = good,” “you + me + science = forever…” Bettany’s Max is arguably the protagonist of the film, changing the most over the course of the story, but we spend more screen-time with Rebecca Hall’s Evelyn. I cannot remember whether Agent Buchanan worked for the CIA, FBI, or Homeland Security, and honestly, by the middle of the film, I didn’t really care. Max and Joseph are virtually interchangeable friends of Depp’s Will, but at least we get a letter of condolence read in voice-over by Freeman!
The idea that RIFT is so afraid of the unknown that it causes the very thing the organization is attempting to destroy is a thought-provoking rabbit hole to explore; consequentially, Transcendence abandons it to investigate an old-world versus new-age debate. And let’s discuss, for a moment, this idea perpetrated lately in media that if you take out the Internet, you basically destroy all technology, including electricity, magnets, and most power-sources. I understand that most cities rely on a power-grid that is probably completely computerized, at this point. However, you can still create a battery out of a potato. The technology still exists even if you wipe out our current system of distributing power. Someone please explain to me how one could not harness new electricity? And yes, for those of you still watching the NBC show “Revolution,” Transcendence basically ripped-off its ludicrous premise. Like, nearly verbatim. It’s cool, though. No one watches that show anyway.
And if you manage to get past all the nano-bots taking over the world nonsense, the final moment of the film is so roll-your-eyes terrible that I had to make sure M. Night Shylaman was not moonlighting as an Academy Award winning cinematographer.
FINAL GRADE: C-
Although the film devolves into an unsatisfying and silly denouement, the set-up should be enough to engage a viewer on a Saturday afternoon repeat with commercials on FX. A long-time fan of Pfister’s, I do believe there are hints of directing talent that can be honed over time, if he avoids scripts with too many characters and not enough substance. I would not advise wasting your money on seeing Transcendence in the theatre. The CGI, cinematography, and production design might be beautiful, but you would be better advised to skip this one and save your money for Christopher Nolan’s next epic Interstellar, out November 7th, 2014.