Film Review – Transcendence
I came away from Transcendence (2014) wanting to like it. In my head, I tried to run through as many positive elements as I could. You know you have a problem when you have to force yourself to think about what a film did well. Here is a sci-fi story that attempts to examine the dangers of juxtaposing human life with technology. This is a familiar premise of the genre, but that’s not the problem. The issue lies with how it is presented to us. There is an old world mentality here, operating in a new world age. Technology has integrated itself almost entirely with society. Everyone has a smart phone, laptop, or some other gadget at all times. Watching this felt like an old person telling us whippersnappers to get off the computer and go outside and play.
Wally Pfister makes his debut as director after years of work as a cinematographer, most notably with Christopher Nolan. In terms of visual skill, there’s no denying his talent. He fills the frame with slick and polished shots, manipulating the light and shadows with expertise. However, as good as the picture looks, the film gets hampered by a script in need of its own polishing. Jack Paglen is the credited screenwriter, this being his debut as well. Paglen swings for the fences, tackling themes involving identity, technology, love, and greed, but never hits any of them directly on target. The ambition is there, but because the plot walks over recycled territory and then takes off into flights of fancy, we aren’t sure if this is supposed to be a somber, philosophical meditation, or a gritty suspense thriller.
A major error is framing the story as a flashback. Because we learn how things end up within five minutes, all the narrative tension is drained out. This creates an impatience to get moving, because we know where the path will take us. We’re introduced to Will Caster (Johnny Depp), the leader in artificial intelligence. After delivering a keynote speech regarding how “the singularity” can take humanity one step forward in evolution, Will is attacked and shot by an anti-technology terrorist group*. He survives the attack, but the bullet that struck him was laced with radiation. Doctors give Will only weeks left to live.
Now here’s where things get kooky. Will’s wife Evelyn (Rebecca Hall) is also a proponent of A.I., and with the help of fellow colleague Max (Paul Bettany), successfully transfers Will’s consciousness into their computer mainframe. Now without a body, Will has the ability to process and learn at unfathomable rates. Once connected to the Internet, Will’s reach goes global, where he can access any type of information, and manipulate anything that has a wifi connection. His urge for knowledge soon becomes blind desire, as the pursuit of scientific breakthroughs surpasses any moral questions it provokes.
There’s a missed opportunity here. We learn that Will’s “transformation” allows him to make giant leaps in science and technology. He makes discoveries in medicine, biology, and the environment. But instead of delving into those ideas and questioning if the ends justify the means, the script blatantly tells us it’s wrong. The possibility of a debate is lost, and everything devolves around the terrorist group trying to stop Will from becoming all-powerful. It’s at this point where events enter Crazy Town. Will’s abilities turn flagrantly ridiculous, as he becomes a combination of many comic-book villains rolled into one. The tone falls apart in the same way as well, as plot events fall drastically into the absurd. By the time we get to the Invasion of the Body Snatchers third act, the film has already jumped right off the tracks.
The cast do what they can with the material. Johnny Depp proves he can still deliver a subtle kind of performance without being too weird. His work here comes as a relief. Paul Bettany puts effort in as Max, despite operating as basically a third wheel. Morgan Freeman, Cillian Murphy, and Kate Mara all make appearances, but their roles are underwritten and forgettable. And then there’s Rebecca Hall’s character. Evelyn is arguably the poorest written individual in the film. She flip-flops between her devotion to Will and the realization of his methods. Everything she does is reactionary; she never propels forward and dictate the action, but lets outside forces influence every thought she has. First she loves Will, and then she fears him, and then loves him again. She brushes off the terrorist group but suddenly understands them a few scenes later. Hall is a fine actress, but has the burden of playing a character lacking in believability.
Transcendence looks good on the outside, but has little to offer when we dig deeper. The ideas are tired, and executed at a sluggish pace. There’s promise within this first time director and writer, but this is simply a practice round, not the main event.
*So if the terrorist group is fully anti-tech, how do they communicate and organize so quickly? Snail mail?