Johnny Depp's mind is downloaded into a computer in the new movie Transcendence! Is this a bold new sci-fi vision or a disappointment? 411's Jeffrey Harris checks in with his full review!
Directed By: Wally Pfister Written By: Jack Paglen Runtime: 119 minutes MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 for sci-fi action and violence, some bloody images, brief strong language and sensuality
Will Caster - Johnny Depp Evelyn Caster - Rebecca Hall Max Waters - Paul Bettany Joseph Tagger - Morgan Freeman Agent Buchanan - Cillian Murphy Bree - Kate Mara Colonel Stevens - Cole Hauser Martin - Clifton Collins Jr.
Transcendence marks the feature directorial debut for Academy Award-winning cinematographer, Wally Pfister. Pfister has actually served as the cinematographer for all of the films of director Christopher Nolan going back to Memento. And now after earning an Academy Award for his work on Nolanís Inception and in my humble opinion doing some revolutionary work with IMAX cameras for The Dark Knight and The Dark Knight Rises, Pfister at last tries his hand at directing. Now credit to Pfister with Transcendence because itís rare to see any type of movie with a budget these days thatís not some type of remake, reboot, comic adaptation, sequel, or involving characters wearing tights. Now not that I always dislike such movies, but in recent years thereís been a general lack of original concepts and stories coming out of Hollywood as of late. Transcendence at the very least, while some of the ideas may not be new, has an original story from Jack Paglen thatís highly reminiscent of classic sci-fi literature.
Transcendence follows a loving scientist couple, Dr. Will Caster (Depp) and his wife Evelyn (Hall). They are two of the leading minds behind the development of a self-aware artificial intelligence computer system called PINN. Unfortunately for them, an anti-technology terrorist group called RIFT (Revolutionary Independence From Technology) is not a fan of their plans. Led by a grungy former computer science intern, Bree (Mara), RIFT organizes a large scale attack to infiltrate and murder many of the groups that are spearheading the development of a self-aware AI computer. The attacks on Willís mentor, Joseph Tagger (Freeman) fail. Another RIFT member attempts to shoot Will, but the wound is not fatal. However, the bullet was laced with a radioactive isotope, giving Will radiation poisoning and about a month left to live.
Desperate to do anything to save her Husband, Evelyn convinces her friend and colleague Max Waters (Bettany) to digitally upload Willís mind or rather the electro impulses of the brain into a computer using PINNís data modules. After making digital recordings of Willís face and voice, Evelynís plan is to make a digital copy of Will and upload it online. Max, despite pointing out the dangers of such a plan and how any digital recreation of Will would not be the original, goes along with the plan. He clearly harbors unrequited love for Evelyn and would do anything to spare her feelings and grief. However, the plan is successful, sort of. A digital version of Will is born. Itís existence frightens Max, so Evelyn kicks him out. RIFT goes on the hunt to destroy the AI and kidnaps Max. Will is able to guide Evelyn to safety after she connects him to the internet, giving a highly advanced AI-system access to the entire worldwide web. Taking refuge in a dumpy town in the middle of nowhere, The AI Will gives Evelyn access to unlimited funds after doing some trading on the stock market. Together they create an odd, creepy sort of utopia. The AI Will develops and has almost unfettered access to the internet. Itís able to unlock the secrets of nanotechnology, which sort of become this movieís McGuffin and catch-all solution to everything. After Evelyn show their bizarre utopia and their new technology to Joseph and his FBI government contact Agent Buchanan (Murphy), they are frightened by the danger of what this AI Will is. And so the federal government aligns with RIFT, who has turned Max over to their view as he sees the potential danger of AI Will, in order to prevent AI Will from growing further and taking over the planet. Since AI Will is connected to his nanomachines, he can connect to the minds of anyone infected by them and create a type of collective conscious (like the Borg). Even Evelyn herself starts to become frightened by what AI Will is starting to become and canít reconcile what she has done.
Now on some level, Transcendence should be applauded. As mentioned earlier, itís an original story. Nolan produced and helped shepherd the project. Transcendence features some very big ideas and ambitious concepts. Pfisterís background definitely serves the material well in visualizing some of the more sci-fi aspects of the story between the advancements of nanotechnology and Willís developing existence as an AI. But that all side, while the story is very bold and ambitious, the execution is very sloppy.
Thereís a turning point in the movie where the American government joins up with RIFT after seeing the dangers AI Will presents. Itís rather absurd move in itself. Secondly, the movie presents that destroying AI Will would literally cut off all the power on the planet and cause a worldwide blackout. Know that show Revolution? Yeah, that would happen. No one seems to consider the consequences of such a move. Such an event would cause a worldwide catastrophe. The country would collapse. Hospitals would go offline. Planes would crash, and millions would likely die. This idea however is presented twice, and no one bats a freaking eyelash. The long-term consequences of this are not explored at all. Again, how this blackout is even able to happen makes no sense and really stretches the line of credulity this film presents.
While Pfister does create some really compelling visuals, shots, and sequences together, by watching the film, you can tell heís a first-time direction. The story is somewhat lacking in substance. Scene transitions are sometimes very awkward and slow. The movie has a rather rough pacing at just under two hours.
Transcendence presents some ideas that sound really important, but they are generally brushed aside later. Nanotechnology also being the catch-all solution to almost everything in the story comes off as way too convenient. Thereís also a gigantic bait-and-switch in the third act that basically contradicts what the rest of the story had been building to and comes off as anti-climactic. Now, Transcendence itself is not the first movie to explore the idea of creating artificial life as it were in our own image. But overall, the movie never really seems to break new ground already explored in say Blade Runner. The ideas of how a self-operating, independent AI system would grow after it goes online and how the movie realistically presents that is interesting. However, the leaps in logic the movie asks you to make go beyond the notion of suspension of disbelief. I simply canít imagine any President or military official authorizing an operation that would cause a major apocalyptic-level cataclysm around the entire world unless it was a last resort. Yet the movie never really gets there.
In terms of performances, the movie is well acted. No one is really mind-blowing. Rebecca Hall seems to have the most material to work with as much of the movie in the second act deals with her adjusting to life with Will as a computer AI. Kate Maraís character as basically an anti-technology, terrorist cult leader is rather flat. Sheís just not very believable as a charismatic leader of this type of organization.
Transcendence I think deserves a look as an ambitious sci-fi story that doesnít quite cut the mustard. Itís got some cool visuals, some decent quality acting, and big ideas. But the overall execution was rather lacking. But to some degree, Iím happy to see an original story like this get made in this current era.
The 411: Transcendence is a somewhat interesting film with some cool, bold ideas but an overall execution that is overall lacking. The movie takes some awkward turns that really make no sense, even in terms of an original sci-fi story. The film has some interesting visuals and concepts that it brings to life, and it is still cool to see an original sci-fi story made on a budget in this day and age. I would recommend waiting to watch this on Netflix or Redbox rather than paying full price at the theater, though.