I had high hopes for Transcendence; the subject matter is compelling, as were the first few teasers for the film, with a strong cast in place. We even named it our most anticipated movie of April 2014 at the end of last year. As more (read: “worse”) trailers came out closer to release, my anticipation waned significantly, but I stand by that initial excitement. Somewhere in here was that film I wanted to see, one that dealt as meaningfully with the benefits and dangers of technology on the mind, just like Her did with technology and emotions and the videogame Deus Ex: Human Revolution did with technology and the body.
The story takes place in a near future where, apparently, numerous researchers are nearing breakthroughs to create truly sentient artificial intelligences. Among those researchers is the not coincidentally named Will Caster (Johnny Depp) who quickly takes center stage when he is one of only a few top-line A.I. researchers to survive a coordinated nationwide (because it seems they all reside in the U.S.) assassination attempt from a technophobic (possibly with good reason) domestic terror group. It turns out that the bullet that failed to kill him, however, was laced with an incurable radioactive isotope that soon will. Research that was still being processed by one of his now dead colleagues is analyzed and reveals that the scientist was able to upload a rhesus monkey’s brain to a computer, so Caster’s wife Evelyn (Rebecca Hall) and friend Max Waters (Paul Bettany) – whose name also seems rather intentional – secretly try the procedure on the dying Max.
If all that seems like things are moving a bit fast, that’s because they are. I’m all for a film dropping you into the middle of its world and making you figure it out for yourself, but Transcendence takes the idea to an unhealthy extreme. I never felt that I had a handle on what should be possible in the world of the movie. It always felt like I was several steps behind all the main characters, like there were details about the world that I was just supposed to know. This is the kind of thing you usually run into in bad adaptations of novels – characters behaving according to a set of rules never explained to the audience in any but the most vague implicit terms – but Transcendence is an original work, so the excuse of trying to condense hundreds of pages into a two-hour movie goes out the window. There are a ton of features that are touched on that have the potential to be meaningful, interesting plot elements, but the movie whisks us from one event to the next so fast we’re never given an apparatus to discuss the very real implications of each piece.
And that’s where the film was really lacking for me. The main conflict quickly becomes two sides asserting that their belief is the right one, but the movie never offers much in the way of discussion on why one side or the other might actually have a point. There’s a little, but it’s cursory. There is, for example a wonderful opportunity to ask questions about whether or not humanity might actually be able to move to a higher plane of existence. Might we be able to abolish famine? Pain? War? This is a movie premised on the grand idea that technology and humanity might one day merge, after all. It had the capacity to discuss issues of the nature of sentience and how morality must be applied to intelligence. Instead, the film is content to set up what amounts to a fistfight between two myopic pugilists who shouldn’t necessarily be so antagonistic towards one another.
The script by first time feature writer Jack Paglen undoubtedly contributes to some of these issues, but it seems to me that it’s first time director Wally Pfister who is most out of his depth. We’ve noted in probably every story we’ve run on Transcendence that Pfister is a frequent collaborator with Christopher Nolan (who is an executive producer on the film). Pfister was the man behind the camera on the Dark Knight series, Inception, and Memento as well as a number of non-Nolan projects like Moneyball and The Italian Job. That experience is in evidence here; there are some very pretty shots scattered through the movie. But they’re just that – scattered. Pfister doesn’t quite find the right rhythm to tell a story with his camera. Some stylish callback shots don’t have the significance they clearly ought to by the end of the movie, transitions between scenes are consistently abrupt, and perhaps most of all, Pfister is clearly still learning how to direct actors. Depp is wooden and lacks chemistry with Hall, and Bettany, Mara, and Morgan Freeman are never much more than expensive set dressings.
The Verdict: 1 out of 5
Man cannot live on bread alone, and a movie cannot succeed on mere premise. The singularity, transcendence, and their implications on our notions of sentience, personhood, and the mind are rich and complicated topics that deserve our debate. Transcendence positions itself at the center of the debate, but then virtually refuses to take part. I wanted so badly to like this movie, I really did, but Transcendence feels mercilessly held back by a lack of creativity from its makers.