Transcendence is defined by the Oxford English as “existence or experience beyond the normal or physical level”, and that is exactly what Dr Will Caster (Johnny Depp), an artificial intelligence researcher is trying to achieve in Transcendence. Review after the jump.
Will Caster and his team have been working hard to attempt to create a super-computer that has technological singularity, i.e. greater-than-human intelligence. However, not everyone shares Will’s desire for such AI technological advancement, and Will is attacked by such a group, receiving an injury which leaves him with only weeks to live. When Will’s partner and wife Evelyn (Rebecca Hall) suggests uploading Will’s consciousness to the super-computer in an attempt to both save him and achieve his dreams, colleague & friend Max Waters (Paul Bettany) cautions her on possible consequences, but she ignores him. What she creates is the world’s first computer which is controlled not by code, but by its own self-awareness, intelligence and thoughts. What happens when a computer that can think for itself has access to the world? Is it the end of humanity or the dawn of a better age?
Academy Award winning cinematographer Wally Pfister (Inception, Moneyball, The Dark Knight Rises) steps into the directors shoes for the first time, with Jess Hall (The Spectacular Now, Hot Fuzz) the director of photography. The Transcendence screenplay by first-time feature writer Jack Paglan was on The Black List of unproduced screenplays, before being picked up for production. Transcendence is absolutely packed full of ideas, most of which are quite interesting, but some of which make little sense. The idea of a computer being meshed with a human conscious and the consequences provides plenty of food for thought and I enjoyed pondering the implications of this. However when they tried to explain the “science” behind it in any of the subsequent developments, it became quite convoluted. Questionable science (particularly the nano-science), theology and sociology all combine for a rather confused formula and at times the film loses focus.
It’s a shame that from the star-studded cast only Paul Bettany gives a decent performance. Granted his character was the most interesting, sitting somewhere between the extreme technologists and anti-AI groups, but he’s the only one that really seemed invested. Hall was fine, but Depp seemed uninterested and Freeman slept his way through. I understand that Depp is effectively playing a computer for a large part of the film, but surely that computer could have had more…personality? Is it Pfister’s fault that his impressive cast didn’t perform especially well or is it down to a lackluster screenplay or their lack of interest? Perhaps it is a combination of all three, but Pfister certainly has to take some of the blame. The direction is certainly lacking and the horribly obvious foreshadowing in several scenes is something which stands out upon reflection. Pfister needed to trust his audience more and not spell everything out. At the same time, you can’t use a significant jump in time as an excuse not to explain character development. It was all a little confused.
I realise that this review is overwhelmingly negative, so it might be a surprise when I say that on the whole, I enjoyed this film. Yes I am aware its a flawed mess which contains a confused story, sub-par performances etc, but despite this I had fun. The film looks fantastic- it’s sharp and the special effects are very well done. I liked the ideas the film brought up, and for the most part I was engaged and entertained. Transcendence may not be a good film, but it is an interesting one. I’ll take something new and interesting over something dull and formulaic any day.
By Sam McCosh
Director: Wally Pfister
Writer(s): Jack Paglen
Starring: Johnny Depp, Rebecca Hall, Morgan Freeman, Paul Bettany
Runtime: 119 minutes
Release date(s): USA: April 18 2014; Australia: April 24 2014; New Zealand: May 1 2014