Starring: Johnny Depp, Paul Bettany, Rebecca Hall
Genre: Thriller/ Sci-Fi
Brilliant artificial intelligence researcher Dr. Will Castor (Depp) is achieving the breakthrough he always dreamed of: to create the first the sentient machine that can have a higher intelligence than the collective intelligence of the entire human race, what he refers to as ‘transcendence’. After being shot with a bullet laced with radioactive material by an organisation against AI technology, the dying Will and his team consisting of his wife Evelyn (Hall) and best friend Max (Bettany) decide to upload his thoughts and conscience to save him and create Will’s own transcendence. It becomes a success and now with so much intelligence at his disposal, Will’s thirst for more knowledge and more power means putting him online. Though Evelyn and Max are not ultimately sure if it truly is Max, once he is online and may initially use his intelligence for what he (or it) thinks is for good use, will life on earth ever be the same again (for good or bad) and is there actually anyway of stopping him?
After doing a sublime job as Christopher Nolan’s DoP, Wally Pfister unquestionably deserves his first stab at sitting in the director’s chair. It is certainly good to see he has lost none of his visual eye, and Transcendence certainly looks great from a visual point of view. Shooting with the more traditional 35mm, and being more than happy to hold shots for longer than it would take Michael Bay to blow up several film sets, Pfister has created a film that is very visually pleasing on the eye.
However, for a film that is predominantly po-faced dialogue heavy and deals with a concept that is not only topical, but has so much potential, Transcendence is never particularly pleasing on the brain and therefore a wholly unsatisfying and empty experience. With a reported $100 million dollar budget (though apparently 20% of that went to Depp) and big name cast, Pfsiter has seemed to try and balance brain with big budget brawn like Nolan has miraculously done, and initially there is a feeling he has managed it. Though not exactly a breakneck pace, the plot plods along at reasonable speed and does deal with some genuinely interesting ideas and ponder some big questions initially that are intriguing.
Though being apparently the leading man, Depp of course does most of his performance through a computer screen. Of course in recent roles he has been overacting and playing silly characters, so here playing a normal bloke would in comparison inevitably make his character look boring. However his character being a bit dull is actually appropriate for the narrative, but this doesn’t hurt the film too much as Hall and Bettany get just as much, if not more screen time. The two of them do solid work despite the sometimes flat script, and do provide characters to give genuine emotional investment in. Likewise Nolan regulars Morgan Freeman and Cillian Murphy have admittedly easy roles to play, but also do solid work.
However despite all this potential, Transcendence undermines all its hard work in a big way in an increasingly silly final third. Often going for generic genre clichés that we have all seen many times over, these make the whole film descend into B-movie territory. This would have been fine in a low budget film that was made with a more tongue in cheek tone and contained some action set pieces, but feels painfully out of place in a straight faced, dialogue heavy film that verges on preachy like Transcendence and it just does not work. As for all those big questions it posed earlier? Best to forget about them, after all the script did.
Well put together, well acted and focussing on a genuinely interesting topic; Transcendence starts off as a slow burn talky intelligent sci-fi thriller, but undermines all its good work and potential with a final third that is lazy, clichéd and increasingly silly.