It’s not often that we are graced with a performance by Johnny Depp where he is not wearing make up. In fact, it is a welcomed occurrence when it happens. But given the opportunity for Depp to shed the eyeliner and work with one of the most talented cinematographers, Wally Pfister (Inception; The Dark Knight trilogy), in his directorial debut, the results are absolutely depressing. Transcendence, written by first time screenwriter Jack Paglen, is a sad, miscalculation of big themes with poor delivery.
Within the shallow world of Transcendence we meet two, brilliant scientists, Will (Depp) and Evelyn Caster (Rebecca Hall). Together these married eggheads are on the brink of creating the next generation of artificial intelligence, with the goal that it could one day save humanity. However, there are those in the world that would oppose this view, they call themselves RIFT (Revolutionary Independence From Technology). One of RIFTs leaders, Bree (Kate Mara), helps to organize a simultaneous attack on AI labs and its leaders across the globe – Will Caster is enemy number one on their list. After taking a bullet from a RIFT member, Will survives, but is told he has only a short time until the radiation laced on the bullet will kill him.
I’m not going to lie, I dozed off at this point because, let’s be honest, what we really want is for Will’s consciousness integrated into this AI platform to begin the main conflict, and everything leading up to this point is useless, boring exposition. After Evelyn works with her friend Max Waters (Paul Bettany) to upload Will to a server, RIFT is on to their schemes. Max is weary of the Will that is speaking to them through the computer and warns Evelyn of the dangers if she allows him access to the Internet. RIFT finds their hideout, but luckily Evelyn is able to go on the lam. Will is able to communicate to her through any electronic device. Unfortunately for Max, he is taken by RIFT, but is told he is one of their model theorists on the dangers of technology and AI so he is kept alive.
Hal 9000 Will and Evelyn find a remote town in the desert to set up shop and create a technological utopia for themselves, FBI Agent Buchanan (Cillian Murphy) and another known AI engineer Joseph Tagger (Morgan Freeman) are off doing God knows what together as two years go by until they discover Willville. Seriously, two years pass and no one notices a giant satellite farm and an underground laboratory being constructed in the middle of nowhere. How this goes under the radar is unexplained and completely silly. And when Buchanan and Tagger see this little operation as a threat to the world, they bring a handful of military people and find RIFT to put a stop to Will and Evelyn. And we are to believe that within this two year span Max also joins the fight with RIFT because YOLO? This is also not fleshed out in the least.
Given that Spike Jonze’s Her (review here) recently released, there are many correlations between films when it comes down to technology and humanity. But instead of heartfelt drama that elegantly encourages human connectivity, love, and finding passion in life outside of the digital world, Transcendence chooses the opposite path by instilling fear of technology. Everything is so cold and soulless that any cognitive grasp of a humanity is lost and resonance to the story is vapid.
Once Will goes all Cyberdine on humanity, probing broken humans with nanobots and connecting them to his hive mind, Evelyn is used as our audience surrogate. She begins to question his motives, and even hers, but only in the most unemotional way possible. I am a big fan of Rebecca Hall, but her her work here and the character she plays felt like they were on autopilot the entire time.
And Transcendence doesn’t give you enough pieces to play with to make up your own argument against total global domination, it’s just wants you to think its bad. A whole subplot of whether this is the real Will or just a copy of Will that the AI makes up is unclear and also clumsily comes into play randomly when the story calls for it. I actually feel kind of bad for Depp because he is reduced to a face and a voice on a screen.
And coming from such a brilliant eye, Pfister calls on Jess Hall (The Spectacular Now; Hot Fuzz) to provide cinematography. And the end product visually uninspired and bland. The visual effects were fine, but nothing to get excited about. When this movie goes off the rails and turns into a action, thriller it is also hardly engaging. And then we have the music from Academy Award Winner Mychael Danna (Life of Pi), who dishes out a very forgettable and unmoving score.
Suffice to say, Transcendenceis a bombastic, disappointing first attempt for Wally Pfister, filled with big words with little weight or meaning. There is no sense of style, vision, or tone that makes this experience memorable. It’s as if no one was paying attention to what was going on while making this movie. For such an interesting concept, Pfister and Paglen must have had zero intent in creating something fun and enjoyable. From start to finish, this overly serious look at the dangers of AI is as empty as I’m sure the theaters will be to see this film.
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Transcendence was directed by Wally Pfister with a run time of 105 minutes. This film has been rated PG-13 for sci-fi action and violence, some bloody images, brief strong language and sensuality.