In Transcendence, Johnny Depp plays Will Caster, the top mind in the field of artificial intelligence. After an important lecture about the future of A.I. research, Will finds himself the target of an assassination attempt by R.I.F.T., an anti-tech terrorist group led by the enigmatic Bree (Kate Mara). The R.I.F.T. attack on Will leaves him facing a radiation poisoning death sentence; unable to let her partner in life and science simply slip away, Will’s wife Evelyn (Rebecca Hall) recruits their best friend Max (Paul Bettany) for an impossible experiment: trying to download Will’s consciousness into an A.I. template, before his body gives out.
Evelyn and Max succeed against all odds, but their joy is short-lived: the A.I. version of Will has an insatiable thirst for knowledge and expansion, as well as grand ambitions about how to change the world. Before long, digital Will is fully plugged in and manipulating global events to fit his new vision, while Evelyn desperately tries to hold onto the man she once knew. When Will’s influence finally moves out of the digital realm and into the realms of the biological and environmental, a growing cadre of opponents decide it is time to bring the battle to the Casters, before their technological agenda forever alters the world.
Transcendence marks the directorial debut of Wally Pfister, best known as Chris Nolan’s longtime collaborator and cinematographer on films like The Dark Knight Trilogy and Inception. Also making his debut is writer Jack Paglen, who chose a big, heady, sci-fi parable as his first feature-length script. The end result of these two first-timers jumping into the deep end of blockbuster filmmaking together? A mess of a movie with multitudes of freshman failings. Though in the end, the director comes out looking significantly better than the writer.
On a directorial front, Transcendence is pretty well crafted. The photography, cinematography, set design, blocking, framing and overall visual shorthand of the film are as strong as you’d expect from someone with as much experience (and acclaim) as Wally Pfister. In some scenes it does feel like we’re watching a “Nolan-lite” film, as choices in shots, sequencing (and especially editing) betray a few stylistic borrowings from Nolan. In general, though, Transcendence does look the part of a major sci-fi blockbuster – it’s just too bad that the appearance is only skin deep.
On a narrative front, Transcendence is complete mess – and worse yet, it’s a boring mess. Things certainly start off with promise, but once the second act kicks in, and Will is in the computer, the movie quickly loses narrative steam in terms of focus, purpose, and thematic/character development. The final two acts of the movie alternate between heady (and on-the-nose) pontifications; recycled sci-fi clichés (can a machine contain the soul?); and when the film tries to do something “original,” we end up with radicalized notions that the movie is never able to fully justify or sell properly in the context of the narrative or viewing experience.
Indeed, the story seems to lose its humanity in perfect coordination with the moment Will loses his: once the human/A.I. hybrid idea is in play, we are pushed so far back from major resonant connections or emotions that we might as well be reading a textbook on singularity theory. Things happen, characters come and go, but the point or meaning of the story seems vague and unfocused – and by the time the movie attempts some third act “twists,” things have gotten so cold and impersonal (and boring) that the swell of poignancy and thought-provocation the movie thinks it builds to has about as much emotion and feeling as binary code.
While the direction is competent and technically sound, don’t mistake that for a thrilling movie experience. Transcendence is NOT very thrilling, contains very few sequences of actual action – and since there never seems to be much tension or high stakes, what action we do get isn’t very satisfying or thrilling. The movie never seems to know if it is more interested in its Twilight Zone TV episode concepts, or its supposed identity as a big-screen blockbuster; one thing is for certain, though: IMAX is totally unnecessary for this film (a waste if you ask me). Unless you like seeing Johnny Depp’s face stretched to fake IMAX ratios, there is nothing, visually speaking, that warrants premium viewing (heck, watching this film in standard theatrical presentation is a questionable enough investment, already).
What is good about Transcendence? The cast, obviously – which is probably the film’s biggest selling point aside from the tag line “brought to you by that Dark Knight guy.” Johnny Depp is remarkably toned-down from his now trademark eccentric antics, making the human and A.I. versions of Will similar but different enough to crate the necessary unease and uncertainty that carries the second act’s clichéd “man or machine” mystery. Rebecca Hall (The Town) is tasked with carrying the crux of the emotion and drama in the story, and she does manage to create a performance that is grounded and relatable within this overblown sci-fi circus (an intelligent, willful – and possibly grief-crazy – woman whose love is tested by a changed relationship dynamic).
Other than our two leads, a lineup of actors from “Camp Batman” – Morgan Freeman, Cillian Murphy, Josh Stewart – and other familiar faces – Cole Hauser, Paul Bettany, Kate Mara, Clifton Collins Jr. – all show up to lend their talents to vague and half-formed characters, who never seem to develop at all and are not very consequential in the scheme of the narrative. Instead of keeping things squarely focused on the story between Will and Evelyn (and all its implications about love, faith, trust and loss), Paglen’s script spreads its focus far too wide and far too thin, giving us something of everything, and enough of nothing.
In the end, the competent direction, solid cast – and some admittedly interesting sci-fi concepts about artificial intelligence, the future of mechanics and singularity theory – keep Transcendence from being a total wash. However, it is definitely not a movie worthy of the hype surrounding it, or the talent working on it. If you like your sci-fi slow rather than exciting, and focused more on philosophy and theory rather than emotion or humanity, then Transcendence is the type of visual dissertation you may want to sit through. For those looking for that Inception-style mix of cerebral sci-fi blockbuster action: this is not it. At all.
…In fact, I’d go so far as to say that they must’ve titled this movie with total irony, because Transcendence stumbles hard in its attempt to rise above.
Transcendence is now in theaters. It is 119 minutes long and Rated PG-13 for sci-fi action and violence, some bloody images, brief strong language and sensuality.
Want to hear the Screen Editors discuss the film? Then stay tuned for episode 140 of the Screen Rant Underground Podcast.