The current state of big-budget filmmaking is littered with reboots, prequels, sequels, requels (yes, that’s a thing), and comic book adaptations. So when an original concept like Transcendence comes out, the only thing to do is thank the cinema gods for allowing something fresh to hit screens and pray that it’s actually worth your time. Unfortunately, despite top-notch talent both in front of and behind the camera, the lofty sci-fi ideas and concepts behind Transcendence prove to be too much for rookie director Wally Pfister to pull off.
A strong concept that gets lost to spectacle
The premise revolves around a brilliant scientist named Will Caster (Johnny Depp) who discovers a way to upload the consciousness of a human into a computer. Along with his wife, Evelyn (Rebecca Hall), and friend (Paul Bettany), Caster announces his theory at a scientific conference, but he is later shot by a rogue terrorist organization dedicated to stopping the advancement of technology before it goes too far.
Transcendence is a movie that spends an hour asking the hard questions, and spends the next hour forgetting to answer them as Caster becomes a two-dimensional Bond villain with a God complex.
In order to save her husband, Evelyn uploads Will's dying consciousness into their experimental computer, allowing him to achieve digital immortality. This experiment also grants him omniscient powers as he travels throughout the world’s Internet database.
Transcendence begins as a meditation on the true meaning of self-awareness, but the script, written by Jack Paglen, soon betrays that very notion and goes in a much more fantastical direction after a few clunky jumps in time. Caster’s computer abilities don’t just stop at being able to plug into the world’s financial and security resources. Soon he's able to use nanotechnology to heal the sick, repair machinery, and, in an absurd twist, create an army of super-powered drones imbued with his consciousness. In the end, he becomes a twisted Christ allegory that, while interesting at first, collapses under its own lofty weight.
Questions without answers
That's where the movie goes off the rails. What starts as a heady story about how our humanity can be lost through our obsession with technology turns into a clichéd sci-fi thriller. The disastrous third act betrays any intellectual thought that Pfister tried to convey in the first half. Because Caster’s powers become so godlike, any similarities with our own moral dilemmas with technology are sacrificed for the sake of spectacle.
Transcendence is a movie that spends an hour asking the hard questions and spends the next hour forgetting to answer them. Caster essentially becomes a two-dimensional Bond villain with a God complex. While Pfister and Paglen should have taken their inspiration from authors like Philip K. Dick and William Gibson, they unfortunately allowed themselves to fall into a hole of blockbuster tropes that rob the film of its individuality. The original concept is ultimately such an afterthought that the final action scene plays out like it's in a completely different film.
The perfect cast to highlight Pfister's talents
Transcendence isn’t all bad, though. Where the story fails, the acting and visuals succeed spectacularly. Hall, in particular, carries most of the movie as a morally complex scientist who loves her husband too much to see what a danger his new digital form has become. She gives a performance that adds more depth to the story than the script can even provide.
Wide shots of a desolate desert town, water beading off a sunflower, and serene California landscapes are all images that will stick with you longer than any philosophical dilemma that the movie clumsily presents.
The movie also features a refreshingly sedate Depp, whose appetite for scenery chewing is practically non-existent here. Strong supporting performances from Paul Bettany, Morgan Freeman, Cillian Murphy, and Kate Mara fill out a dream cast for any rookie director.
Even Pfister (Christopher Nolan's longtime go-to cinematographer), along with cinematographer Jess Hall, provides beautiful imagery throughout. Wide shots of a desolate desert town, water beading off a sunflower, and serene California landscapes are all images that will stick with you longer than any philosophical dilemma that the movie clumsily presents. After years spent as one of the best cinematographers in the business, Pfister proves that he's more than capable of being a strong director. Unfortunately, the scope of the story and the schizophrenic tone of the script proved to be too much for him to overcome in his first job.
Transcendence is a movie that reaches high but fails to come to terms with any of the questions it asks. It has plenty of ideas to explore, and in our tech-obsessed culture this could have been an important film. Unfortunately it allows itself to be bogged down by the same Hollywood clichés that it set out to, in a word, transcend.
Written by Jason Serafino (@Serafinoj1)