Johnny Depp has become something of an enigma. Depp excels at playing wildly over the top characters with very little grasp of what anyone would consider reality. In Transcendence however, Depp makes a completely different choice. Unfortunately, that choice is to sleepwalk through a performance. His character is completely muted with a monotone speech pattern that never displays any hint of emotion. It mirrors the entire film in many ways. This is a one-note, one-theme movie that never stretches out to reach its potential and becomes a logistical nightmare by the end.
Depp plays Will Caster, a brilliant doctor in the field of artificial intelligence. A terrorist organization attempts to assassinate him, but instead of outright killing him they give him radiation poisoning. He is given a month to live and in that time Caster’s wife (also a brilliant scientist) decides to try and upload his consciousness into a computer. Whether or not they are successful is a question that the film tries to answer.
In some ways Transcendence is akin to the Spike Jonze film Her from last year. It is science fiction, but delves into topics that are not far off from our own reality. Our technology is expanding at an exponential pace and these films deal with what will happen when that technology begins to intersect with humanity. What does it mean to be human? Can a computer understand human emotion? Is artificial intelligence the next logical step in human evolution? Transcendence broaches these topics but never weaves them into its reality in the way Her did. I will give credit to the film makers for attempting to deal with some thought provoking issues, but the film is a mess and never feels like it actually has something to say.
This is the first directorial feature for longtime Christopher Nolan cinematographer Wally Pfister. I believe that Pfister would have been much better served by starting on a smaller film and getting his bearings before tackling a hundred million dollar film with a star studded cast. This has all the trappings of a first time director: shots that look very nice but don’t mean anything to the story and are flourishes with no point, camera angles that feel just a tad off, a complete set piece to set piece story with scenes that feel separate from the whole. The last of those is something that Pfister’s mentor Nolan is still guilty of so the carry-over there is understandable. There are just too many little problems for the film to add up to anything great.
This is also the first screenwriting feature for Jack Paglan. Again there are numerous problems that more established screenwriters would have found ways around. The Cillian Murphy character is completely pointless and from a logic standpoint shouldn’t even be in the film. The Morgan Freeman character is inconsequential. The terrorist organization is never fully fleshed out so their agenda seems vague at best. Caster’s wife, played by Rebecca Hall, is forced to change emotions and motivations on a dime depending on what the script is requiring of her in that scene. The script is a draft or two away from being something poignant, but as is is messy and needs some polish. Transcendence feels like a film that either needs to be longer or shorter. It introduces too many characters and plot threads for the film to deal with in the running time. It should be either significantly longer to give the film time to run with its ideas, or stripped down to eliminate the side characters that are unnecessary in the final version.
It is sad that a film that discusses the logic of computers being able to understand and mimic human emotion falls victim to logic problems throughout. For instance, a terrorist group that wants to rid the world of dangerous technology uses every technological weapon at their disposal. Or the fact that someone was able to build a gigantic underground secret lab with the most high powered computers in existence over the span of two years and no one noticed. It is these kinds of problems that hold the movie back. Transcendence has ambitious ideas that are completely let down by the filmmakers’ lack of experience. In more capable hands this could have been something special, but what we received was mediocre at best. Grade: C-