Starring: Johnny Depp, Rebecca Hall, Paul Bettany, Morgan Freeman, Cillian Murphy, and Kate Mara
Sometimes, a film can live or die based solely on the idea around it. Sometimes those ideas are so out of date, it makes the story it’s trying to tell seem irrelevant based solely on its timing. Finally, there are ideas that no matter how hard the film’s makers want to pull the audience in, its combination of plot holes and silly diatribes could not save it even if its idea was nice and fresh to begin with. Transcendence would have been a great movie had it been released back at the dawn of the internet. Back then, tech thrillers such as Lawnmower Man and Virtuosity were theatrical releases that didn’t necessarily hit a chord with critics. But, what they did do was implant into filmgoers’ minds the dangers that come with advancing technology will not only cease to go away, but will get more and more grand as our society gets more and more reliant on technology. Getting back to Transcendence, the film wouldn’t be so bad if it had even the
slightest hints of winks and nods to the audience that say, ‘yes, we know our premise is silly, but if you can just go with it, you’ll have a good time.’ Instead, first time screenwriter Jack Paglen’s script, despite having the depth of a normal rainy day puddle, is so full of action tropes, bad plot twists, and robotic dialogue that around the hour and twenty-minute mark, you wish it would stop transcending and just, end.
The film’s premise revolves around the organization known as PINN (Physically Independent Neural Network) headed by brilliant scientist Will Caster (Depp). His dream in life is to make computers become more intelligent than humans. Being seen by some as completely in defiance of the ethical ramifications that come with such a goal, Caster is attacked by radicals and grazed by what turns out to be a radioactive bullet. Desperate to save his friend, Max (Bettany) and a few of his other cronies rush Caster to a gymnasium to do the same thing to him they have only done to a monkey before, and that is upload his subconscious from his brain into that of a computer. Eventually, Caster starts having dreams of spreading his consciousness through the internet, all the while turning the entire planet into an artificial machine.
If the film seems complicated, it really isn’t. Although the script wants us to think it is. While Christopher Nolan (whose name is attached as executive producer) has always been known to be the catalyst of a thinking man’s blockbuster, Transcendence proves to be anything but. Not even an iota of a good idea is found here, and it’s a shame that in all of the production meetings, the simple plot point of how the hell a scientific team performs an unproven neurosurgery in such a little gymnasium was never even addressed. It’s almost as if they didn’t count on any questions being asked, which is a surefire sign of pretentiousness. And that’s all Transcendence proves to be. A pretentious, extremely full-of-itself, mess.
As far as the direction by longtime Nolan cinematographer Wally Pfister goes, it’s way too all over the map to even be judged. Yes, the same lush pallet he brought to Nolan’s Dark Knight and Inception is in place and brings a nice touch to the proceedings. But the film is engulfed in limitations, not the least of which is a completely unclear idea of who is on whose side. It is this unkept sense of place that gives Transcendence an overall aura of tone deafness.
Like the film itself, Transcendence’s performances are extremely uneven. Especially Depp, whose 90s cool stigma has all but worn off the last few years. In looking at him sleepwalk through this role, he seems to know it. He is as bad here as I’ve ever seen him, reacting to situations in the same way he did as Glenn in the first Nightmare on Elm Street film. Bettany, finding himself in the dire role of Will’s best friend, manages to keep from being TOO annoying. Freeman lumbers around pretending to care while collecting a paycheck. Nolan mainstay Murphy has a small role as an FBI detective. But, again, the character’s complete implausibility in relation to the story at hand (they really only sent ONE FBI agent to a problem such as THIS?!) makes him irrelevant. About the only one who comes out unscathed is Hall. Who, despite having almost zero chemistry with Depp in the early scenes, puts her all into her performance once he’s, uhhh, uploaded.
It is amazing that in this century, producers thought the names Nolan and Depp would be enough to make this film seem somewhat respectable. But while Pfister and company may have thought they were making this generation’s The Fly, Transcendence’s overly serious and over plodding script proves to be its downfall. I don’t hold Pfister solely responsible, as I feel he could excel in the director’s seat given the right script. But hearing characters in a Nolan approved film sprout moronic dialogue like ‘please upload me’ makes me pray for the future of Prometheus 2, which Paglen has just written the first draft of. Judging from this mess of a film, he makes Lindelof look like Sorkin.