‘Transcendence’ (2014) Movie Review

Transcendence movie review
Johnny Depp in Transcendence
Photo: Warner Bros.

The idea behind Transcendence is big, ambitious and nearly impossible to pull off in a two hour feature film. For a logic-based narrative such as this one it becomes troubling when it ends up with logic flaws of its own, largely as a result of the film’s running time as it would take nearly four hours or one thousand pages to properly set this story up so critical audiences wouldn’t ask questions such as, “Why hasn’t the government noticed this yet?” However, it’s the underlying fabric of this story, the questions it poses about our future, that I found compelling, even if the characters and scenarios involved are a little hokey and ridiculous.

Transcendence takes a look at “what’s next” for humanity, with the increasing influence of technology in our lives, and how it will be used in the future, driving the narrative. Looking into the idea of what’s next is scientist and Artificial Intelligence expert, Will Caster (Johnny Depp), his wife and fellow researcher Evelyn (Rebecca Hall) and colleague Max Waters (Paul Bettany). Each has a different idea of how to use advanced technology, while an anti-technology outfit going by the name of R.I.F.T., led by Kate Mara, is determined to make sure that technology is destroyed.

After an assassination attempt leaves Will with only a month left to live, Evelyn and Max attempt to upload Will’s brain into a computer, keeping what they hope will be his conscience alive while his body dies. But will it really be Will? How will they ever know? Machines can’t feel or show compassion? Or can they? If they can what does that mean for humanity?

If you’ve seen the trailer you know the attempt works (on some level), but to what degree you’ll have to watch to find out. Eventually we find techno Will surfing the Internet, manipulating Wall Street and growing in power and intelligence, but to what end. He must be stopped! Right?

With Transcendence, screenwriter Jack Paglen presents a picture in which technological enhancements aren’t exactly a creation of humanity, but instead an extension of humanity. Where things become dicey is when this extension looks to change the world in which we know it as humanity can only accept so much change.

These ideas are fascinating to explore and once the film’s finale rolls around I absolutely loved the conclusions the narrative reached as a result of the action. Unfortunately the film has a hard time coming to these conclusions in a logical manner. Government agencies are blind to what’s going on in the middle of the New Mexico desert while the R.I.F.T. organization is not only killing people, but going around kidnapping and has their own, crack surveillance team.

Director Wally Pfister makes his directorial debut after making a name for himself serving as Christopher Nolan‘s director of photography on films from Memento to The Dark Knight and Inception, for which he won the Oscar. Handed $100 million for your first directorial effort and a cast of thousands is a daunting task and Pfister couldn’t have chosen a more complicated subject to delve into for his first time out.

Pfister must get us to care for these characters, understand their dilemmas and get us to understand the science behind what’s taking place and why R.I.F.T. is against it all in a very short amount of time and it results in leaps in narrative logic and human emotion that don’t quite gel. Morgan Freeman as an A.I. expert, friend and colleague to the Casters joins forces with an FBI agent played by Cillian Murphy and their involvement in the story is no grander than an episodic primetime television show, so dumbed down and simplified it seems as if they belong on “N.C.I.S.” rather than a high concept feature film.

Transcendence, on the other hand, does play with some cool sci-fi ideas and even bleeds into Invasion of the Body Snatchers territory and is, more-or-less, the horror equal to Spike Jonze‘s Her, both suggesting the eventual coming together of technology and humanity, proving there’s very little separating human DNA from the “ones and zeroes”.

What most will probably find disappointing, given Pfister’s past, is Jess Hall‘s (Hot Fuzz) cinematography. Hall presents a muted color palette and has some fun with macro-photography and bokeh effects through rain-driven windshields, but otherwise it’s a rather drab picture with very little to catch the eye as the camera seems to be more of a passive observer rather than taking us deeper into the narrative.

From an acting perspective Depp is given little to do, spending the majority of the film as a digital recreation, but I do remember at the beginning how it’s becoming increasingly hard for me to picture Depp as a “normal” human being, given his penchant for over-the-top characters. Most of the film, however, is placed on Hall’s shoulders and outside of a few up-and-down moments in the beginning as she must flip a switch in support of her now-digitize husband, she does a complimentary job as her growing concern over what techno Will has become begins to surface.

Bettany is also given a lot of the load to carry, but his story gets so muddled into the R.I.F.T. camp and Mara’s over the top, platinum haired character, I cringed a little every time the story went back to their makeshift bunker.

When it comes down to it, Transcendence stumbles narratively. For a film dependent on logic it has too many logic flaws of its own, however most of them in the opening hour. The intent of the film is there, thankfully, and once you strip away the path to where the film comes from and focus on the end game, Jack Paglen has conceived an intelligent look at a possible future humanity may very well face. What’s most interesting about this future, and a question you’ll have to ask yourself while watching the movie, is who is the enemy in this scenario?

Just by watching the trailers and listening to his God-like voice within the film, coming from all the corners of the theater, Will is clearly looked at as an antagonist in the film, but is he really? As you watch, look close at Will’s intentions. Look closely at his goals and what it would mean for the world. There are some interesting discussions to be had here, especially once you push the selfish nature of humanity aside.

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