*** (out of 5)
April 18, 2014
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
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Anyone familiar with my tastes for science fiction – or even just my reviews over the past twelve years – knows that I am a sucker for a film about people trying to better the world with science only to have things go horribly awry. If you can utter the words “What could possibly go wrong?” more than once during a film for comedic effect, it’s probably something that I would be at least remotely interested.
In recent years, there have been some spectacular pieces of speculative fiction with this concept (e.g., “The Rise of the Planet of the Apes” and “Splice”). “Transcendence” doesn’t come close to those films’ level of quality, but I still found plenty to enjoy in the movie.
That being said, “Transcendence” is far from perfect, and like the human geniuses in the film, it is its own worst enemy.
The story follows a group of computer programmers who are trying to figure out a way to bring artificial intelligence to the next level. After a coordinated terrorist attack on AI labs around the country, which leaves one of their own shot with a poisonous bullet, they have to try to rebuild their research together.
Will Caster (Johnny Depp) was the one injured, and he is quickly dying of radiation poisoning from the attack. In order to save his mind, his wife Evelyn (Rebecca Hall) maps his brain and consciousness onto their AI program. What results is a hyper-intelligent Will who may or may not be the same person. Over the next couple years, Will and Evelyn develop further and become a possible threat to the human race.
Ironically, a film about real and artificial intelligence ends up failing in the intelligence department. While there are some fantastic concepts introduced throughout the film, they quickly grow out of control. In an effort to reign everything in and keep the movie appealing to a mainstream audience, the story gets painfully dumb in the third act. It’s as if the filmmaker were faced with a decision to do something great or blow something up.
Their choice was to blow something up. It makes sense to the corporate pencil-pushers at the studio, but it really destroyed what could have been a brilliant piece of speculative fiction.
“Transcendence” is the freshman directing effort of Wally Pfister, who is best known as the cinematographer for Christopher Nolan’s movies. Seeing the movie, this makes sense because not only is it filled with beautifully shot (though ultimately unnecessary) images of dew drops and dabbled sunlight (a dead giveaway that a cinematographer is making the film), but it plays like a first feature by someone who doesn’t quite have a handle on telling a coherent story on film.
Even Christopher Nolan started small, not getting a big film until “Batman Begins,” and even then not throwing his hat into huge filmmaking until “The Dark Knight.” Pfister tries to be too big too quickly. He didn’t have his “Memento” or “Following.” This is why such lofty concepts in the movie aren’t handled properly.
“Transcendence” is a prime example of a film that overgrew itself. The huge studio budget and A-list cast looks good on paper, but I really think a movie like this would have succeeded better if the budget were greatly reigned in and egos on set weren’t as much of a problem. In that case, it would have forced the movie to deal with its plot and characters rather than pretty-looking spectacle.
Still, with all of these problems, I rather enjoyed “Transcendence.” It’s a woefully imperfect movie, but it does look ahead to some brilliant concepts. These concepts are not handled very well, but there’s some great things to be found buried in the film if you care to find them.