by A.J. Hakari
Any film that dabbles in speculative science fiction needs to provide a convincing world for its far-out ideas to inhabit. For instance, while not every little detail about the recent Snowpiercer holds up under scrutiny, the movie feels almost completely legit, thanks in large part to the sheer confidence it shows in its concepts and mythology. 2014’s Transcendence is another flick that dreams big, and in terms of reflecting in its visuals the cold logic practiced by some its characters, it’s a success…the only trouble being that the audience couldn’t be any less bothered to care. You see, while the look and feel of a picture are important in validating a story in the viewer’s eyes, it’s the passion with which it’s told that makes them stay, how compellingly it brings certain issues to light or argues in favor of a particular stance. But while Transcendence gets off to an admirable start, introducing a premise rife with potential to strand people at an ethical crossroads, it hasn’t an ounce of gumption to see it through, sitting there unengaged in itself or with anyone watching it.
Dr. Will Caster (Johnny Depp) is standing on the verge of a technological breakthrough. Scientists have dreamed of creating the most sophisticated artificial intelligence in history, but this guy is just about done, determined to merge man and machine in order to help the world grow in knowledge like never before. Unfortunately, this doesn’t sit well with an anti-tech terrorist group, one that attacks Will and leaves him quickly dying of radiation poisoning. With no other way of preserving his life, Will’s wife Evelyn (Rebecca Hall) and friend/colleague Max (Paul Bettany) make him a part of his own last experiment by uploading his consciousness into the AI with which he was tinkering. While the doc’s physical body passes on, his mind appears to survive the transfer, much to Evelyn’s relief — and Max’s suspicion. The fact that what claims to be the soul of his dearly departed pal has displayed a newfound urge to absorb as much information as possible and start shaping society as he sees fit has him more than a little freaked, although Evelyn refuses to see anything wrong. But as the digitized Will puts into motion plans to take over an entire town to further his goals, will Evelyn realize the danger afoot before it’s too late?
The cutesy critic thing to say is that Transcendence feels like it was assembled by a computer, but I can think of no more appropriate analogy for the vibe this film gives off. Its structure is clinical to a fault, with scenes comprised of the bare minimum of info needed to move the plot along. Need to establish a romantic bond between Will and Evelyn? A few brief moments of small talk should do the trick. How about showing us Will and Max’s friendship? Why, having them do more than just say they’re buddies would be a waste of time. I’m not sure whether the screenplay or the editor is more at fault in this department, but in any case, Transcendence moves at a very erratic pace and rarely allows a sense of humanity to pierce its many stone-faced exchanges of techno-babble. Though the film bases itself on a morally gray premise that could easily make for a thought-provoking techno-thriller, it doesn’t make an especially strong or interesting case for either side of the debate at its core. The story does much ruminating on whether or not it’s worth securing the planet’s survival at the cost of mankind’s free will, but the movie’s refusal to explore the many avenues of ambiguity involved with this issue leave it floundering. Viewers are challenged on no level whatsoever, so instead of being left torn up inside by a plot that pits emotions versus logic, we end up yawning at an inert trainwreck that equates drama with people making monotone speeches whilst surrounded by an awful lot of computer monitors.
Further reducing Transcendence to a narrative shambles is the total inability of its incredible cast to make something meaningful out of the material. If there were any draw to the flick other than what was at one point a promising story, it was Depp getting to play the most subdued role he’s had since the early 2000s. But while the man’s detractors can praise the heavens that he’s not playing a ghoul caked in pancake make-up for once, we still have to deal with the fact that Will is a totally emotionless and banal character. This might have meant something if the script played around more with the idea of how much Will is actually in the machine, but again, we don’t know nearly enough about him beforehand for any such suspense to blossom, nor does Depp make any clever attempts to blur the distinction. The remaining players are similarly affected, with Evelyn’s devotion to Will coming across as dense and Max receiving very little motivation to eventually join forces with the very people who put his friend six feet under in the first place. Hall and Bettany give decent performances, but that still leaves an entire ensemble that gets jack-all to do but stand around looking serious/puzzled. Cillian Murphy, Morgan Freeman, and more are on hand, seemingly to give the film an air of grater importance just by hanging around, a practice that backfires once you realize what little their parts amount to.
Transcendence was the directorial debut of Wally Pfister, a man best known as Christopher Nolan’s long-time cinematographer. It’s too bad their association didn’t yield a similar deftness at blending escapist entertainment with high-concept ideas for the former, because while this picture does indeed look like a million bucks, it’s all a glossy shell surrounding a hollow and toothless thematic core. Transcendence has already garnered a reputation as one of the greatest duds in recent memory, and while it’s far from an utter travesty, that so much talent was assembled to create something this dull and empty is a sizable bummer, indeed.