Transcendence is a quietly intense and cerebral film that relies heavily on its visuals and the gravitas of its stars to hold audiences’ interest as it methodically unfolds. It’s a film that wants to explore difficult concepts and plays at asking complex questions regarding the ethics of those who work at the very forefront of scientific frontiers, and the thing that ultimately drives them to keep searching for answers when others might stop short: passion.
But its thoughtfulness and ambitions are not enough to help the film overcome the shortcomings of faulty pacing and a muddled conclusion that leaves you wondering just what exactly the filmmakers were trying to say and what in the end they were out to accomplish.
Drs. Will and Evelyn Caster (Johnny Depp and Rebecca Hall) are as devoted to their careers-long pursuit of developing artificial intelligence as they are to each other. Their work, along with that of their colleague and friend Max Waters (Paul Bettany), seeks to benefit mankind through the many applications it might have in medical and environmental science and engineering, but it is not without its detractors and outright enemies. To those who believe that technology is too omnipresent and intrusive in our world already, the possibility that the Casters’ work might lead to the creation of a sentient, self-aware intelligence whose power and reach through the internet would be virtually limitless just looks and sounds too much like creating life, or worse, creating a kind of god.
Early in the film, an attack by a militant anti-technology group seeks to derail the efforts of the Casters’ and their peers on college campuses and research centers all across the country, and at first it seems to succeed. Dozens are left dead, and Will himself is left with weeks to live, the victim of an assassin’s bullet. The crisis, however, reveals a solution to a major stumbling block in the Casters’ research, as well as a way to potentially save Will’s mind and consciousness, if not his body. Soon, Evelyn and Max are working round the clock, racing against Will’s steady physical deterioration, to transform the biochemical electrical pulses that comprise Will’s brain function into raw data that can be uploaded, deciphered, and ultimately preserved by a powerful computer, and they succeed despite another attack by the extremists.
Once the transfer is complete, however, the question becomes whether the intelligence in the machine really is Will at all, as it sets a plan in motion to boost its power and secure its safety and that of Evelyn’s, so that they can continue their work without outside interference. Evelyn’s faith that the vast intelligence presenting itself to her with Will’s face, voice, and memories really is her husband is eventually tested and pushed to the brink as she finds herself caught in the middle of a standoff between Will and the people that see him and his growing power as a threat to humanity itself.
Transcendence is the directorial debut of Oscar-winning cinematographer Wally Pfister, whose most notable achievements stem from his work on films helmed by Christopher Nolan, of Inception and The Dark Knight trilogy fame, who has a producer credit here. Considering the style and quality of Pfister’s prior work, it’s no surprise that this film looks on screen as striking as it often does, or that as a director he chooses to let the camera linger on choice objects and motions — the fall of a raindrop from a sunflower’s petal, a darkened traffic light, the unfocused blur that streetlights and car headlights in motion become when viewed through rain-streaked windows — in order to establish the tone and mood of a scene or exchange. He perhaps relies too heavily on his talent for identifying such touchtone visual moments and using them to advance the story, rather than allowing the actors themselves to move the plot forward with action and reaction. Thus, what should be a strength results in a film that might feel slow and ponderous, particularly if you don’t find the interpersonal drama or the themes of ethics in the frontiers of science particularly interesting.
In that sense, some of the blame for the film not quite working could be pointed in the direction of Depp, a performer who usually can be counted on to hold just about any audience’s attention with his considerable range and energy. But this is one of those rare occasions when Depp makes a clear, conscious choice to underplay the character, to make him, aside from his scientific brilliance, a fairly ordinary guy with hair looks great even when its a mess. In other words, Will Caster is as far from Tonto, Captain Jack Sparrow, or Hunter S. Thomspson as a character can get: he adores his wife and the life they have together, treasures the little world they’ve built around each other, and bristles a bit when forced out of it in order to deal with the outside world that occasionally treats him like the scientific community’s equivalent of a rock star. Throughout the film he speaks in the lowest of tones, and shows his feelings through the slightest of expressions and gestures, and that choice serves the film well once the character only exists as the machine and the question of whether it’s truly him becomes a relevant plot point. But it also robs the film of potentially its most dynamic film presence, and there’s no one else among the considerably talented supporting cast that’s called upon to make up for the lack of energy.
But the real problem lies with the payoff for all that built-up suspense going into the final act, and what Pfister, Nolan, and the film leave audiences with once the credits roll. For more than half the film, cast, filmmakers, and crew lead you to believe that what you’re watching is a cautionary tale about the dangers of scientific advancement without thought of ethics or future applications, a theme that’s been explored time and again in everything from Star Trek to The Terminator films. Viewers who were fans of Star Trek: The Next Generation two decades ago might also find themselves whispering “Resistance is futile” in the film’s later acts, as Will’s actions mirror the tactics of a certain memorably implacable adversary bent on technological domination on that series. Whether that similarity makes you grin or groan, once you recognize it, it’s impossible to ignore.
But once the story has completely unfolded and its resolution plays out, arguably the paradigm has completely flipped, and the danger wasn’t artificial intelligence or playing God or technology run amok at all, but rather the scared little humans who fear and lash out at anything they can’t comprehend or control. If THAT was the intended message all along, then the film doesn’t go nearly far enough in its indictment, spends far too much time leading audiences in the opposite direction, and doesn’t leave much room for discussion of the issues afterward. A film like this should leave you thinking, debating, and questioning, but Transcendence all but points out who you should have sympathized and cheered for all along, despite all the evidence to the contrary.
If you stuck with a film like this to the end and you witness that flip, what else is there to do than to just throw up your hands and ask, “Really? All that just to get to this?” With Transcendence, you’d be well justified in doing so.
Score: 2.5 out of 5
Starring Johnny Depp, Morgan Freeman, Rebecca Hall, Kate Mara, Cillian Murphy, Cole Hauser, and Paul Bettany. Directed by Wally Pfister.
Running Time: 119 minutes
Rated PG-13 for sci-fi action and violence, some bloody images, brief strong language and sensuality.
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