TRANSCENDENCE is the directorial debut of Wally Pfister, an Oscar-winning cinematographer most well known for his collaborations with Christopher Nolan (INCEPTION, The Dark Knight Trilogy). Johnny Depp stars as Dr. Will Caster, a scientist whose pioneering work in artificial intelligence puts him on the hit list of a rogue, technophobic terrorist cell. Rebecca Hall plays Dr. Evelyn Caster, who decides to upload her husband Will’s conscience into the AI they’ve been developing after an assassination attempt forces them to take drastic measures. Max Waters and Joseph Tagger, Will’s colleagues played respectively by Paul Bettany and Morgan Freeman, take it upon themselves to try and stop the AI once it grows out of control and threatens to alter the human race as we know it.
This film takes a big idea, several big ideas in fact, and tries to distill them into a hi-tech dramatic thriller, reminiscent of 90’s-era cyberpunk films like THE LAWNMOWER MAN and VIRTUOSITY. Either due to Nolan’s presence, who serves as executive producer, or the high caliber of the cast (which also includes fellow Nolan vet Cillian Murphy), TRANSCENDENCE carries itself in a more stately and self-serious fashion. Science fiction allows for stories that delve into deep existential concerns: Can a mind live inside a machine? Can consciousness truly be transferred and uploaded, like a song or video file?
These genre exercises also allow for said ideas to be [much] more palatable to general audiences. You’re allowed to be bold, and unfortunately TRANSCENDENCE never reaches the boldness of its initial premise. I applaud any big-budget film that isn’t a sequel/remake/reboot of some sort; such is the state of Hollywood filmmaking today. So, it pains me to have an original film starring some of my favorite actors and produced by some of my favorite filmmakers be so disappointing and somber.
Jack Paglen’s script asks interesting questions about free will versus hive mentality, advancement versus ethics, etc. The film itself looks amazing, with DP Jess Hall working in sync with Pfister’s style. But all the striking imagery in the world can’t make up for having three boring leads. Will and Evelyn Caster are boring. They are intelligent, forward-thinking scientists deep in love but they, and their boring friend Max, bore me with boredom. Will Caster doesn’t get interesting until someone tries to kill him; not a good sign.
I’m glad Rebecca Hall is playing someone who isn’t just eye candy. I appreciate the film asking big questions, even if it’s in no way capable of providing easy answers in a two-hour span (and, to its credit, doesn’t try to; the ending is left to your own interpretation). And I’m a fan of DPs-turned-directors, such as Jan de Bont or Barry Sonnenfeld, who know the importance of telling a story visually. I even admire that the Will A.I. isn’t just some carbon copy of other malicious A.I. in the past (HAL, SkyNet, KITT’s evil twin KARR which I am totally not making up). However, I expect so much more from this team and this premise that not completely bungling this story doesn’t make up for missing out on a potentially thought-provoking, thrilling and touching film, all of the ingredients of which were present.
TRANSCENDENCE is not as intelligent as it thinks it is, it’s not as creepy as it wants to be, and ultimately this is a curio in the filmography of Wally Pfister. The man has racked up a lot of favors throughout his career and made a lot of people a lot of money. And there are worse versions of this story out there (see THE LAWNMOWER MAN and VIRTUOSITY). I think Pfister has made and will make incredible looking cinema, with excellent performances and magnetic, compelling stories. This one just isn’t it, though it sure is pretty to look at.
A side note: casting Morgan Freeman was the smartest thing Pfister did. This is a man that can take any exposition, techno-babble or computer jargon, and make it sound like The Most Important Thing In The World. He knows what movie he’s in.