In the tradition of many flawed but fascinating science fiction films, Transcendence tries to be about ideas, but also has to build a story around them. In that way it’s imperfect, but if you’re in the mood there’s a lot of great ideas to chew on, and some good, creepy portrayals of future tech. Johnny Depp and Rebecca Hall star in the film, and if you like the cinema of ideas, it’s definitely of interest.
- Director: Wally Pfister
- Writers: Jack Paglen
- Starring: Johnny Depp, Rebecca Hall, Paul Betany, Kate Mara, Morgan Freeman, Cillian Murphy
- Music: Michael Dynna
- Cinematography: Jess Hall
After revealing that all technology has been destroyed, Max Waters (Bettany) explains how the world lost everything. Hot-shot genius Will Caster (Johnny Depp) is working on building toward the singularity (which he labels transcendence) with his wife Evelyn (Hall) when luddite terrorists led by Bree (Mara) stage an attack that destroys years of research and leaves Will suffering from radiation poisoning that will kill him. Evelyn then decides to copy Will’s brain into a computer, with him the face of the singularity. She does so with the help of Max, but when Will dies, Max is scared they may not have gotten everything, and so uploading him may create a monster. With the terrorists on their trail, Will is ported into the internet, which leads to him getting Evelyn to build his ultimate compound. There he develops nanotechnology which can fix humans with defects, but also leads to them being superhuman and Will is able to control them. Eventually those originally in favor of Will are afraid of his brave new world.
- Ideas: This is a heady sci-fi flick that is wrestling with interesting ideas about the value of free will and our fears of AI becoming so powerful it ultimately betrays us. Though this has been the subject of numerous films previous, it’s just as engaging here, and Pfister puts his own spin on it.
- Cast: Pfister, a first time director, gets some of the best actors working today. And though many will accuse Depp of sleepwalking through the role, much of his time as a human is key to understanding the film, and then he’s in the computer. But he’s actually awake for this film, while performers like Hall, Bettany, Freeman and Murphy do good work with their roles.
- Creepy: There are some solid moments of creepiness, as the film portrays with a certain ambivalence what Will is doing. Is he working to destroy mankind and take it over?
- Christopher Nolan: Pfister is known as Christopher Nolan’s cinematographer, and as such the film has a similar feel to many of Nolan’s movies, which is probably unavoidable. This has a sterile approach, and when the movie gets into some weird and wild ideas, it mostly approaches them with a clinical, less sexual aesthetic, the kind one would find in a Nolan film. But the film doesn’t have the same sort of brain power behind it, and though the film does build to a moment which rewrites a lot of what has come before it, it isn’t as ingenious as Nolan at his best. And so it’s still a worthwhile exercise, it doesn’t have the same staying power.
- Pacing: The film is done in a very — let’s say — considered style that may leave some bored. I wasn’t but that’s probably going to be a standard complaint. It’s also the sort of film that’s likely to get a small cult following.
- Orci/Kurtzman Style Machinations: The Luddite terrorists seem to know things that would seemingly be impossible for them to know simply to move the plot along with a greater sense of urgency. To facilitate a faster and more exciting narrative, there are short cuts that happen where characters do things to get to the next/more important sequence, and without the kinetic direction of someone like Michael Bay, it’s hard not to be annoyed of them while you’re watching an ostensibly smart movie.
- Chess Pieces: Much of the cast are there for their role in the grand scheme of things. Some get to have a little bit of fun with that (Morgan Freeman seems mostly awake), but someone like Kate Mara is left with little to her character besides being anti-singularity. Rebecca Hall is the only actor given a real functioning journey though the film, but otherwise the actors are there to move the story along, which is unfortunate as it suggests that Pfister isn’t all that good or interested in the performers.
This is the sort of interesting idea-driven film studios don’t make much of, and it’s likely that that trend will continue after this movie, which doesn’t seem to be generating a lot of hype. But it’s also the sort of film that has ideas that can stick with you for days, and may require a rewatch to fully appreciate what’s going on.
Transcendence hits theaters April 18.