Transcendence (United States/United Kingdom, 2014)

April 18, 2014
A movie review by James Berardinelli
Transcendence Poster

To be fair, Transcendence contains its share of "big ideas" - science fiction tropes that have fascinated readers and viewers for decades, ever since the concept of computer sentience became fodder for stories and movies. Unfortunately, it takes more than grand concepts to make a movie and the lack of cinematic connective tissue is apparent in this poorly focused, meandering, and ultimately disappointing film. Arguably more than any other genre, science fiction has an obligation to seduce the viewer into applying the "willing suspension of disbelief" (the means by which contrivances are overlooked). With its plot holes and head-scratching incongruities, Transcendence fails in this arena thereby making the production as a whole feel bloated and unsatisfying.

Johnny Depp plays Will Caster, a computer genius who is close to making a key breakthrough in the advancement of artificial intelligence. This makes him the target of fringe terrorist groups who believe the rise of the computer is leading to the downfall of humankind. They strike out at Will, critically injuring him. With only five weeks to live, he begins the process of uploading his consciousness into the most advanced computer on earth - a project continued by his wife, Evelyn (Rebecca Hall), and a colleague, Max Waters (Paul Bettany), after his death. The process works but the "transcended" Will is a cold, dangerous entity whose sole goal is the accumulation of knowledge and power. Max is immediately aware of the situation and alerts others, including fellow computer scientist, Joseph Tagger (Morgan Freeman), and FBI agent Buchanan (Cillian Murphy). But it takes longer for Evelyn to realize that the "Will" in the machine is no longer the man she loved.

This is the directorial debut for Wally Pfister, the veteran cinematographer who has worked behind the camera on all of Christopher Nolan's films since Memento. The film, which was shot on film in a digital era, looks great and the special effects are first-rate, but the same degree of care wasn't accorded to things like storytelling and character development. There are chunks of Transcendence that don't make sense including a bit about a computer virus. There's no chemistry between Johnny Depp and Rebecca Hall and their characters' love story, so critical to making the narrative come alive, never feels real. There's a powerful romantic tragedy in Transcendence but it never achieves critical mass.

There's also a key structural flaw. The screenplay, credited to Jack Paglen, opts to present the majority of the story as a flashback. To that end, we start with a world where the Internet no longer exists (and its absence has taken down the power grid) and the main characters are no more. There doesn't seem to be a compelling reason to present things using this chronology and it leeches away much-needed tension. All the while as Computer-Will's power is growing, we know how things are going to turn out. This makes it difficult to remain invested in the narrative.

Pfister's high industry profile allowed him to assemble a top-notch cast (although Christian Bale, originally pegged to play Will, had to drop out because of scheduling conflicts). Depp is strangely muted here, which some might consider a pleasant change after a recent series of over-the-top roles. Rebecca Hall is off-key, struggling to find the right note for an underwritten yet critical character. Paul Bettany, Cillian Murphy, and Morgan Freeman (the latter two worked with Pfister on the Batman movies) are underused. They spend a lot of time standing around not doing much.

Those who are fascinated by the potential for computer sentience will find some things in Transcendence to mull over, although the most compelling aspects of the movie are derivative. Parts of the film hearken back to a TV episode of the original Star Trek ("Where No Man Has Gone Before") that aired in 1966. A more recent antecedent is Spike Jonze's Her, which asks some of the same questions with greater eloquence and resonance. Too often, Transcendence shows a marked preference for what Shakespeare called "sound and fury, signifying nothing."

Transcendence (United States/United Kingdom, 2014)

Director: Wally Pfister
Cast: Johnny Depp, Rebecca Hall, Paul Bettany, Cillian Murphy, Morgan Freeman, Kate Mara, Cole Hauser
Screenplay: Jack Paglen
Cinematography: Jess Hall
Music: Mychael Danna
U.S. Distributor: Warner Brothers
Run Time: 1:59
U.S. Release Date: 2014-04-18
MPAA Rating: "PG-13" (Violence, Profanity)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1