FILM REVIEW: Transcendence
By: Stuey Evans
You just know this movie is going to be bad when you get dialogue as silly and ludicrous as “it’s Y2K!”. These moments unfortunately make up the majority of “Transcendence”, the work of Wally Pfister in his directorial debut.
The film is a relatively ambitious sci-fi flick that never lives up to its promise, no matter how many big ideas and Hollywood stars Pfister loads it up with. Depp’s Dr. Caster is a scientist concerned with understanding the world, while his wife Evelyn (Rebecca Hall) is one interested in changing it – details about the work they do are delivered early on, at some sort of conference with criminally bad security. The pair are partners both in life and in work, and they’ve spent years working away on a massive artificial intelligence project that threatens the ideals and philosophies of a pack of cyber-terrorists who want the world to “unplug.” To make the audience feel stupid, one of them even has a tattoo that says as such, in case you don’t get their aims without visual cues.
It’s one of those same terrorists who, at that poorly secured conference, shoots Will, killing him not with his poorly placed bullet, but the radiation poison it’s laced with. Distraught over his imminent demise, Will, Evelyn, and Max hatch an inconceivable plan to use their technology to scan and upload Will’s brain into their A.I. system. On the surface this may seem implausible (and it is), but it’s got some intentionally convenient things to push it along, like the fact that the same terrorists that shot Will also blow up A.I. labs around the country except for, yeah you guessed it Will’s and Evelyn’s lab. As well as this you have Max (Paul Bettany) who is a scientific genius willing to help. But one of the major plot errors is that Evelyn locates an abandoned building to do their work in instead of their surviving million dollar lab. Ultimately the experiment itself of course proves successful, Will becomes an artificial intelligence, but as we all know by now it comes with some serious consequences, the kind that send the Casters on the run for whole years. Will, of course, begins to evolve, and although his goals and ideals seem high-minded, that soon changes.
Pfister certainly throws some interesting ideas into play, many of which are imaginative on the surface but fairly obvious upon further reflection (what Will eventually “becomes” is not much of a surprise as it’s seen in the trailer and the twist comes across as flat.). Everything all lacks that level of basic cleverness throughout most of the film. Pfister also, quite bizarrely, introduces one of his most imaginative ideas – one that essentially drives the final act of the film – within the film’s opening moments.
Despite Depp being billed as the lead of this piece, the majority of his work sees him looking confused, then looking sick, and then existing just as a face on a computer screen. Although this allows Rebecca Hall to be the film’s true star and she does an impressive job of carrying the film and is quite believably emotional as the conflicted Evelyn. Yet while Hall is more than adequate in her role, the film’s other leading lady doesn’t impress. As techno terrorist Bree, Kate Mara is subjected to very little screen time, a barely comprehensible set of motivations and apparently very little direction, it is very surprising as she normally puts in great performances no matter what she is involved in.
The film is Pfister’s first attempt at directing as the filmmaker has long served as Christopher Nolan’s director of photography. But despite his extensive background and knowledge in film, some of the basic mechanics of solid storytelling seem to escape him. What should be simple elements to get right they are either ignored or never fully explained. For one, the film has absolutely no sense of the passage of time, and large portions of the film flash by without any indication of how much time they’ve occupied, a slip-up made all the weirder by Pfister’s decision to occasionally throw up inter-titles that do tell us a “certain amount” of time has gone by. Character motivations are quite often shockingly unclear, and the supporting cast suffers a lot because of it. An example of a particularly bad combination of the two, Paul Bettany’s Max is subjected to an imprisonment that comes with both an uncertain amount of time and a major motivation change that is never explained.
Although “Transcendence” sure looks like it has a pedigree and the visuals are one of the few high points, the film is unquestionably the work of both a newbie director and a green screenwriter. It’s earnest and tries to impress, but it’s also unrefined and frequently just plain silly. Did it look good on paper? I can only guess because it looks pretty bad on the big screen.