Contains some spoilers
It’s safe to say that Transcendence didn’t exactly set the box office on fire when it came out earlier this year. Largely critically panned with a few notable exceptions such as the LA Times’ Kenneth Turan, the film only just made its $100 million budget back and will certainly never be regarded as one of the shining jewels of Johnny Depp’s film back catalogue.
I had felt that this was a shame, as I was rather intrigued by the basic premise of the film. Depp plays artificial intelligence pioneer Will Caster who is working toward the moment he calls ‘transcendence’ when a computer intelligence will truly exceed that of a human for the first time. Caster’s work is cut short when he is shot by a terrorists from an anti-technology group afraid of the consequences of his work, and Caster’s devoted wife Evelyn (Rebecca Hall) and best friend Max (Paul Bettany) seek to save him by uploading his consciousness into a mainframe computer. But is what they’ve saved actually still Will – and what will the experience of ‘transcending’ do to him?
There’s plenty of space there for a lot of thought-provoking metaphysical debate and discussion, but the film pretty much ignores every single part of that. It’s actually quite amazing how disinterested it is in the implications of the questions that its premise sets up, simply jumping to knee-jerk answers without any real contemplation of the issues beyond a few spouted slogans. Instead, the film prefers to go off in a very strange direction that’s both slow and obtuse; in the end the questions of consciousness are abandoned entirely in favour of an attack of CGI-rendered nanobots waging war on humans, which reminded me strongly of the equally unsuccessful 2008 remake of the science fiction classic The Day The Earth Stood Still starring Keanu Reeves.
It would be simplistic to seriously suggest that as a long-time cinematographer on Christopher Nolan’s films, first-time director Wally Pfister is getting too sidetracked on the visuals to the detriment of the rest of the film; but at times this is exactly what it feels like. Pfister finds some lovely touches and unusual shots during the film but a sum total of none of them actually helps the storytelling, with the result that the film lacks the tension and drive it needs to succeed in the thriller genre. Pfister isn’t helped by the script by Jack Paglen, which manages to deliver a massive spoiler for the ending with its own prologue scene and is also very jerky and fragmented throughout with the majority of the characters never developing in any natural way but instead suddenly twisting out of shape in response to the needs of the plot.
Cillian Murphy, Cole Hauser and Morgan Freeman are little more than background extras, while Kate Mara (as the lead anti-technology terrorist) is required to wear such a one-note furious intense glare for the entire film that it ends up becoming unintentionally comedic by the end – I honestly laughed out loud in her final ‘furious’ scene of the movie. Hall is solid at the heart of the film and Bettany is also a reliable contributor, but alas he disappears halfway through and when he turns up again he’s changed out of all recognition into a gun-wielding action man. Even so, he’s still one of the best things in the film.
The biggest problem is Depp albeit not really through any fault of his own, just that the part is a straight-jacket for his talents. He plays both the real Caster and the computer simulation version, and the film wants the latter to be the usual deadpan, emotionless representation. However that means that in order for the question of “Is this still Will?” to have any sort of substance to it, the real Will can’t be too different and so he also has to have a similar flat and disconnected sense to him – in other words, he’s the usual ‘genius with Aspergers’ figure. The combination serves to leave Depp looking tired and basically bored with the whole project, much as Keanu Reeves did in the aforementioned The Day The Earth Stood Still remake when attempting an ethereal ‘alieness’. Transcendence tries to get around this emotionless core by having Hall act her socks off in response, but she’s really the lone star in that regard and as a result seems to be in a completely different genre of movie from her co-stars.
With the direction also leaving the film seeming ponderous and not a little too pleased with its own supposed cleverness, it means that Transcendence really becomes astonishingly dull even when the nanobots teem in and do all sorts of nonsense science fiction stuff including launching their very own invasion of the body snatchers. It’s too little, too late and too silly to salvage the movie by this point.
Don’t get me started with the plot holes, which are legion. The biggest is the fact that the heroes’ idea to resolve the issue of the threat that Will comes to represent would actually end up killing billions of people on the planet through the collapse of the modern technological underpinnings of our civilisation, and yet they give not a single thought to this or whether the benign but inhuman autocratic intelligence that Will represents might actually be preferable to mass fatalities. The fact that the script doesn’t want to spend a single line discussing this is illustrative of how disinterested it is in following through the exploration of the very core concept that drew me to watching the film in the first place.
So is Transcendence a bad film? No, but it’s thoroughly mediocre, two stars at best. What it is more than that, however, is a major disappointment given the talent involved in putting it together – from Pfister and Depp to the rest of the big name cast and even Christopher Nolan as executive producer. You’d kind of expect this would be very safe hands for a movie of this type, and that you’d get something which at the very least is interesting, bold and innovative even if it weren’t ultimately successful. Instead you get something that moves with all the urgency of a sloth, avoids any questions worth asking, and ends up delivering so much less than dozens of films, TV shows and books that have probed the topic of AI in the past – from Metropolis to 2001 to Blade Runner and even Data in Star Trek: The Next Generation
It’s that disappointment that has earned the film the somewhat over-vicious reviews that it has ganered. I’m trying to avoid getting similarly vitriolic in my own disappointment with the movie, but ultimately even in my most charitable frame of mind this isn’t a film that I can recommend as being particularly worth two hours of your time. The DVD itself doesn’t have much to recommend it either, with some very short and perfunctory EPK extras totalling about 15 minutes and not even including an audio commentary; the picture quality is fine but the contrast seems overboosted leaving it both too dark in the shadows and blown out in the highlights, so I can’t even suggest it on technical grounds either.
Transcendence is now out on DVD and Blu-ray, and to download from streaming services.