Director: Wally Pfister
Writer: Jack Paglen
Stars: Johnny Depp, Rebecca Hall, Paul Bettany, Morgan Freeman
Release date: April 24th, 2014
Distributors: Warner Bros. Entertainment, Summit Entertainment
Running time: 119 minutes
Best part: The unique visuals.
Worst part: Johnny Depp.
Sci-fi blockbuster Transcendence had the perfect ingredients to deliver a thrilling and enjoyable addition to this ever-lasting genre. With an intriguing first-time director, starry cast, and interesting ideas at the helm, this movie had enough potential to be something truly…transcendent (the word does indeed suit this situation). In fact, this computer-charged techno-thriller could’ve become the antivirus for the ever-growing trend of superhero/explosion-fuelled extravaganzas. However, as you can tell from my judgemental tone, the final product hurriedly short circuits.
When judging this flick objectively, it’s difficult not to turn against this disappointing and bizarre creation. As yet another case of “interesting premise spoiled by poor execution”, Transcendence promises significantly more than it can possibly hope to deliver. Not only does it promise too much, but the very few answers it does deliver are bafflingly silly and superficial. Before I delve into this sci-fi actioner’s flaws, I’ll attempt to describe its patchy and cumbersome plot. Similarly to our unfortunate lead characters’ actions, unlocking its labyrinthine code could unleash dire consequences! We start off in the not-too-distant future as renowned researcher Max Waters (Paul Bettany) trudges through a post-apocalyptic Earth. The story then jumps back five years, and prolific researcher Dr. Will Caster (Johnny Depp) and his wife/fellow scientist Evelyn (Rebecca Hall) are close to developing the first machine to be driven by sentience and collective intelligence. Aiming to “unlock the most fundamental secrets of the universe”, Will and his team, supported by his mentor Joseph Tagger (Morgan Freeman), are willing enough to present their PINN project to the world. Examining the First World’s reliance on technology, the limitlessness of Artificial Intelligence, Biocentrism, nanotechnology, the Singularity, and the analog/digital debate, Transcendence almost seems intent on questioning romantic-drama Her‘s viewpoints. Most importantly, Depp being everywhere at once is a terrifying prospect! Unfortunately, Depp’s miscasting jumpstarts Transcendence‘s horrifying descent.
Nowadays, sci-fi extravaganzas like Prometheus and Elysium are criticised for touching on valuable ideas without examining them. However, unlike Transcendence, those projects are salvaged by action sequences, intense moments, and powerful visuals. I’ll admit the movie’s set-up appears entertaining…on paper. Sadly, with Transcendence drifting away from paper in all respects, the narrative’s technological side overshadows anything resembling believability, entertainment value, intelligence, or empathy. A radical extremist group called Revolutionary Independence from Technology (RIFT), led by Bree (Kate Mara), ruins Will’s life and projects immediately after his Earth-shattering presentation. Within the first third, director Wally Pfister (Oscar-winning cinematographer for such Christopher Nolan features as the Dark Knight trilogy and Inception) uploads tension and promising characters into the narrative’s perplexing database. With Nolan as an executive producer, Pfister strives for Nolan’s all-encompassing vision and direct touch. The first third is fuelled with convincing moments and momentous concepts. However, after Will’s consciousness is uploaded into PINN’s systems, the narrative becomes as exciting and naturalistic as watching lines of code zoom across a screen (spoiler: it’s dull!). Telegraphing predicable and aimless events, the story’s all-important concepts are picked up and dropped faster than Will’s internet access. In addition, Transcendence jumps from one bizarre and illogical plot-point to another. Will, hacking into the world’s governmental and financial structures, carries out logistically and ethically questionable actions without consequence. Jumping two years into the future, twists, turns, and character motivations contradict one another. Worse still, the final third’s absurd revelations and climactic moments undermine everything laid out within the first-two thirds.
“We’re not gonna fight them. We’re gonna transcend them.” (Will Caster (Johnny Depp), Transcendence).
Sadly, Pfister, despite being one of Hollywood’s most talented figures, has succumb to Hollywood’s worst virus: studio interference. However, despite the directorial failings, the blame rests with Jack Paglen’s incessant and simplistic screenplay. Despite being influenced by 2001: A Space Odyssey and Solaris, Paglen’s work is nowhere near as insightful or purposeful as it thinks it is. At one point, FBI agent Donald Buchanan (Cillian Murphy), one of several underdeveloped characters, compares Will’s Deity-like existence to Y2K. This scene outlines the narrative’s most crippling flaw. Transcendence, aiming for the blockbuster and romantic-drama crowds, doesn’t draw the line between technobabble and valuable exposition. Its convoluted answers will confuse anyone lacking an intrinsic understanding of Computer Science. However, those studying this subject will laugh at the movie’s monumental factual errors and plot-holes. Its viewers can, at the very least, settle for its splendid visuals. Pfister, thanks to his immense background in cinematography, can bolster even the most unappealing of locations. With everything at his disposal, Pfister’s style makes decrepit warehouses, desert-set towns, and laboratories look immaculately picturesque. The action sequences, though nonsensical, do elevate this otherwise tiresome and dour sci-fi drama. Throwing in explosions, car chases, and shootouts, these more enlightening moments overshadow the meandering mid-section. Sadly, by this point, the narrative’s top-heavy structure has delivered a messy, nonsensical, and forgettable effort.
Powered by a top-notch cast, riveting director, and memorable subject matter, Transcendence could, and should, have been an instant classic. Ambitiously, it’s over-arching reach explores concepts many big-name directors and writers are afraid of. But why are they afraid? Is it a primal fear of what they don’t understand? Or are they waiting for someone else to grapple them? Either way, Transcendence is the perfect example of filmmakers, and characters, delving into all the wrong places. This potentially creative and impactful sci-fi yarn ends up being as laughable, frustrating, and nonsensical as Windows Vista.