FILM REVIEW: Transcendence

Transcendence (Wally Pfister, 2014)
transcendence posterSet in the near future (it isn’t specified when exactly), Transcendence addresses the issue of the dangers of artificial intelligence (AI), but doesn’t quite probe deep enough. The film is directed by Wally Pfister, cinematographer on many of Christopher Nolan’s terrific films (The Prestige, Inception, The Dark Knight trilogy). This is his first foray into directing, and unsurprisingly he doesn’t quite hit the heights of Nolan’s brilliance. However, where the film is really let down is in Jack Paglen’s screenplay. There are so many deeper issues to be explored but Transcendence only touches the surface.

Morgan Freeman, Cillian Murphy & Rebecca Hall chat to artificially intelligent Johnny Depp
Morgan Freeman, Cillian Murphy & Rebecca Hall chat to artificially intelligent Johnny Depp

After Will Caster (Johnny Depp) is handed a death sentence, his wife, Evelyn (Rebecca Hall) and friend and colleague, Max (Paul Bettany) attempt to upload his consciousness so that he can continue to live on after his physical death. Surprisingly, the issue of the loss of physical intimacy between the couple is barely touched upon at all. Or the fact that he’s ALWAYS with her (as a voice) to the point where I just thought “geez, give her some space!”  It is unclear whether the shallow approach to the subject matter was due to time constraints forcing cuts of original material, or if the script never really reached a deeper level. There is little character development and a rushed sense to the finished product.

Johnny Depp & Rebecca Hall
Johnny Depp & Rebecca Hall

I almost failed Year 10 science and yet even I sat through this thinking that the scientific reasoning seemed pretty terrible. Maybe take that with a grain of salt because I really, really suck at understanding scientific concepts. Nonetheless, it seemed almost laughable in parts. So much seemed glossed over – the decision to upload Will’s consciousness almost seemed to come out of nowhere and barely more than a few sentences were spent explaining how this was going to occur. The existence of an anti-technology extremist group is also well under-developed, as their presence gradually fades into the background, leaving you to wonder who the hell Kate Mara is meant to be. This wasn’t helped by the fact I spent the first quarter of the film thinking it was Sienna Miller. Getting rid of long-winded scientific explanations may have been a blessing because I tend to get lost during these. And by that I mean I zone out because I don’t understand and get bored. But these moments were almost TOO brief here. And I think I still zoned out. I didn’t get the ending either and that’s always a bummer.

Rebecca Hall
Rebecca Hall

The story came so close to greatness but it just missed the mark. So many themes were waiting to be explored but weren’t. However, it will hopefully open up a discourse amongst those who’ve seen it. The film makes the viewer ponder some of the same questions that were posed by the recent Her (Spike Jonze, 2013), but Transcendence is a much inferior film. Possibly most notably because it just didn’t have enough HEART. Oh the potential! It was there! It was so close! But ultimately I didn’t care very much about the characters. The performances weren’t horrible but they were nothing special. It was weird seeing Johnny Depp in a relatively serious (read: non Tim Burton) role for the first time in a while. Rebecca Hall was okay but not particularly likeable. Kate Mara’s character was WAY under-developed and her stupid hair just got annoying. Paul Bettany and Morgan Freeman played their usual characters (English guy and God-type). I don’t even know why Cillian Murphy was in this – his character barely does anything. I expected him to turn into a major villain because that’s usually the case with Cillian Murphy, but he just coasts along doing nothing. It’s possible the acting wasn’t helped by the direction – some have noted that someone with a mostly photography/cinematography background may be too focused on the visuals and not enough on the characters. Pfister’s direction wasn’t awful, but I think he had massive expectations cast upon him due to the Nolan connection.

Kate Mara and her heinous wig
Kate Mara and her heinous wig

It is scary to think how artificial intelligence could take over the world, and I think it’s a positive when films address this. Surely with all the potential for things to go wrong scientists will be ultra, ultra careful with what they create and release… but then again, maybe we’re screwed. These are exciting issues and the potential for depth in this film was so strong. Unfortunately, the potential was not fully realised. As far as current science fiction films go, Transcendence can step aside. Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar is coming. And we know that will be amazing. Nolan is the master, and his protégés still have a lot to learn.

3 stars

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