MOVIE: *** (out of 5)
BLU-RAY EXPERIENCE: **1/2 (out of 5)
Johnny Depp as WILL CASTER
Rebecca Hall as EVELYN CASTER
Paul Bettany as MAX WATERS
Cillian Murphy as AGENT BUCHANAN
Kate Mara as BREE
Cole Hauser as COLONEL STEVENS
Morgan Freeman as JOSEPH TAGGER
Clifton Collins Jr. as MARTIN
Studio: Warner Bros.
Directed by: Wally Pfister
BY KEVIN CARR
I’m not saying that “Transcendence” is a smart, fantastic science fiction movie. However, it’s not nearly as bad as everyone is saying it is, either. It certainly doesn’t deserve the awful 19% score on RottenTomatoes.com, especially not when summer rubbish like “Deliver Us from Evil” has a 29% and “The Purge: Anarchy” enjoys an inexplicable 59%.
Perhaps the biggest sin that “Transcendence” committed was two-fold: 1) an overly ambitious new director with too much experience in the industry bit off more than he could chew, and 2) the year was already filled with some uncharacteristically smart independent science fiction.
After all, when you put “Transcendence” up against science fiction movies like “Transformers: Age of Extinction,” it’s quite brilliant and forward-thinking. (Then again, any given episode of “Scooby-Doo!” is just as brilliant and forward-thinking when compared to any Michael Bay movie.) However, even up against bigger budgeted films like “Edge of Tomorrow” and “X-Men: Days of Future Past,” it’s got a lot to live-up to.
And that’s not even considering comparing the film to movies like “Under the Skin,” “Enemy,” “The Signal” and “The Machine,” which give a stronger, more out-of-the-box look to cinematic science fiction.
Yes, there are some flaws in “Transcendence,” some mighty big flaws. The fact that Wally Pfister could command such an impressive cast (including Johnny Depp, Morgan Freeman, Paul Bettany, Rebecca Hall and Cillian Murphy) on his first film, making this a reunion of sorts of the films from his production partner Christopher Nolan, leads the audience to expect something more cohesive and polished.
These may sound like backhanded compliments from someone who wanted to like “Transcendence” more than he actually liked “Transcendence,” and that may be a fair statement. Still, there’s some great stuff in the movie, and if you come at it with much lower expectations than these elements would otherwise live up to, the film is entertaining and thoughtful. (It just doesn’t quite stick the landing.)
“Transcendence” is about a group of artificial intelligence researchers who, after a violent attack on their labs which leaves one of them dying of radiation poisoning, decide to map his brain onto a computer network. What could possibly go wrong?
Plenty does. We never quite know if the character of Will Caster (Johnny Depp) perished with his human form or made it into the machine. Perhaps he is a fantastic imitation that evolves beyond the boundaries of the human mind. Perhaps he is the original Will corrupted by power. Ultimately, it doesn’t matter as the audience will never know any more than the characters will.
What we’re left with is a film that contemplates the meaning of consciousness, the soul and humanity as a whole. Like most science fiction, it comes at A.I. with a suspicious bent, and that’s understandable because the entire concept seems to be tampering in God’s domain. The real danger is whether we are creating something that would eventually (probably sooner rather than later) ascend beyond human understanding.
The movie gets dumbed down pretty quickly at the end with a string of explosions that normally are meant to distract the audience from poor script writing. There’s also an overly simplified ending that borrows a bit too much from “Independence Day” without the enjoyable popcorn nature of that film.
The end product of “Transcendence” is a slick-looking first film with a cast no one would otherwise be able to assemble for a freshman feature. Pfister does bite off a lot more than he can chew, but I don’t fault him for trying to gnaw through all that intellectual gristle. I appreciated what the film was trying to do and even what it ultimately – and imperfectly – achieved when the credits roll.
Like the films of Pfister’s buddy Christopher Nolan, “Transcendence” comes with a bevy of featurettes and clips but none of the extras you’d might expect like a commentary track, outtakes or gag reel. There is a missed opportunity for a real meat-and-potatoes look at the reality behind A.I., but unfortunately, it’s distilled down to a two-minute segment of sound bytes. However, that will only be missed by someone like me who gets into the nuts and bolts of speculative technology.
There are the film’s two theatrical trailers, however, along with the short (under five minutes each) featurettes “What Is Transcendence?,” “Wally Pfister: A Singular Vision,” “Guarding the Threat,” “The Promise of A.I.,” “It’s Me,” “Singularity” and “R.I.F.T.”