Interesting concept, terrible execution
Transcendence is a film transcending the limits of suspended disbelief. (“It’ll be Y2K” line made me balk in the audience.) There are many problems with this film, but it has redeeming qualities. Director Wally Pfister spent the greater part of the last 15 years serving behind the lens as cinematographer/ DOP to many of Nolan’s films, which includes winning an Oscar for his camera work in 2010’s Inception. The pleasant camera aesthetics are all the film has going for it save for a massively talented (and unfortunately wasted) cast of stars and big names: Johnny Depp, Morgan Freeman, Paul Bettany, Rebecca Hall, and Cillian Murphy. Transcendence isn’t the worst movie I’ve seen this year, but it’s the worst I’ve seen with Nolan’s name attached — how else are Warners making money on this one?
Suspended disbelief is necessary, but the makers of Transcendence tread some dangerous territory from minute one when Paul Bettany walks around a desolate, tech-less Berkeley, California, narrating to the audience that the reason for this wasteland is that the Internet was destroyed, cancelled, expelled, whatever to save mankind. That premise is already a little difficult to get behind at first, especially if one has seen “The I.T. Crowd.”
The technology references only get worse from there. It seems as if the filmmakers picked and chose when to care about detailing technology and its advancements/ benefits and when they just needed to throw around technical slang/ jargon to get through a bit of boring dialogue. Believe me, the majority of this picture is boring dialogue. The only scenes when the dialogue seems to spark any perspective or insight is in regards to the process of “transcendence,” or: the ability to transcend consciousness from body to computer (and in this case, subsequent servers using the internet as a path) to avoid death/ prolong life. Beyond the dialogue, there isn’t much action beyond explosions and evacuating people. It’s a PG-13 cyber thriller, we’re going for most demos here — inundate the script with repetitive, challenging dialogue hoping everybody will understand by the time they absolutely need to and then water it down with sequential explosions to make it seem exciting. My opinion is that Source Code from Duncan Jones is a better alternative.
For the most part, Pfister’s film plays as a bad mixture of Spike Jonze’s Her and any incarnation of Invasion of the Body Snatchers without giving too much away for readers who intend to see it. It’s an AI love story with sentient people under a form of mind control. Somewhere in there, we’re supposed to root for somebody — but who is it? The audience never receives a proper protagonist in the story. Bettany’s character is the first of the big three characters we meet, but his role is more or less a catalyst to keep the plot going and fades in and out of the film. He isn’t the protagonist completely as he isn’t on screen for a majority of the movie. In fact, his character is the biggest problem for Transcendence. Bettany (A Beautiful Mind, Gangster No.1) is presented as the antithesis to Depp’s ambitions, but is forced to confront these philosophies at literal gunpoint when his character is abducted by an anti-technology terrorist cell and made to help them. You know what? He does after a while. After a two year time jump, the writer fails to explain why his character went from full on prisoner/hostage to member. Paul Bettany’s character slinks right into Stockholm syndrome and the audience is supposed to understand and go along with that. Buying into one’s murderous captors’ plans is not a quality I want the hero of a narrative to develop. Stopping transcendence was paramount, but not with terrorists. Plus, Bettany isn’t one half of the relationship subplot, so it can’t be him…
The obvious choice for protagonist would be Johnny Depp. He’s a global mega star, top-billed actor in every project he chooses, why shouldn’t he be the good guy? Because he’s always the good guy. Depp deviates from his normal quirky roles and instead delivers a chilling performance as Dr. Will Caster. Caster becomes the victim of these anti-tech terrorists through one mean or another and uploads his consciousness online with his wife’s (Hall) help. However, once his consciousness transcends his brain, he quickly develops grander ambitions and needs an army to accomplish them. Depp sells his performance, transcending bad writing with his trademark magnetism.
The only choice for a protagonist after this is Rebecca Hall (The Town, The Prestige) as Evelyn Caster, wife to Will, and she’s as close as the film offers. Hall gives an outstanding performance, playing a character constantly at odds with her marriage as to whether or not she should trust the transcendence of her husband. Her character is the emotional center of the film, and on that note, Transcendence delivers. We watch her grow and learn throughout, she’s the audience’s surrogate in the film. Caster constantly pulls for her husband to be the man she fell in love with years ago, but she’s never fully convinced either way. Instead, she just doesn’t question it, finding solace that she can simply be with Will beyond the death of his body. This is where the film should have gone. Hall’s protagonist role should have been beefed up to definite protagonist. I wanted to know her struggle more because that was the most relatable part of the film — who would question technology if it meant we could be with our deceased loved ones again?
Transcendence offers an excellently-shot film by cinematographer Jess Hall with nothing much more to offer beyond the ambitious score from Mychael Danna. Rebecca Hall turns in a great performance while Johnny Depp takes a break from weird to go digitally omniscient. Wally Pfister shot some of the best films of the century (The Dark Knight, Inception), but it’ll be a while before his directing gets there. Transcendence is a film with a vision beyond its scope — trying much too hard to examine every possible result. The audience never knows whom to trust or follow, and not in a good, whodunit fashion, but more of a “who-is-that-and-why-do-I-care?” fashion.