Starring Johnny Depp and Rebecca Hall
Directed by Wally Pfister
Seldom does a film arrive with so much baggage. The directorial debut of Wally Pfister, maestro cinematographer of titles such as "The Italian Job" remake, "Moneyball", and the Christopher Nolan directed "The Prestige", "Inception", and the "Dark Knight" trilogy, brings with it a significant deal of expectation. It seems like everyone expected this to be Nolan-calibre; expectations, it's fair to say, were high. I hate mentioning it, but it's impossible to avoid. As if to add fuel to the fire, calling a movie "Transcendence" practically screams out "I am deep, I am important". So here we have a big, *serious* science fiction film, tackling mind-bending concepts, and looking scintillating. How does it play?
Johnny Depp stars as Will Caster, a scientist, Artificial Intelligence developer, and a man seeking to create the ultimate sentient machine, combining logical intelligence with human thoughts, feelings, and emotions (an electronic Mr Spock?). He becomes the target of a group of activists fighting against such "un-natural" progression, and falls victim to a radioactive-laced assassination attempt. When it becomes apparent that he will soon die from radiation poisoning, his wife Evelyn (Rebecca Hall) and friend and colleague Max (Paul Bettany) embark on the completion of an experiment on which Will had been working - the uploading of thought patterns and electrical brain-waves into a physical mainframe. Can a human "exist" in such a set-up? Would the artificial Will really be him, or would it be a pale reflection, driven by the computer? So far, so tantalising, so mind-stretching. The experiment works, and Will exists no longer in a physical body, but in computerized, virtual form. Theoretical physicist and general all-round thinker Michio Kaku (please look him up and read his books) is one of many who have questioned what it is to be conscious, and human, and then to ask if consciousness could be transferred to an alternate host. And the popular consensus is that it could be possible. Could. So the science here in this science fiction is not quite so outlandish as it sounds. “Transcendence” embraces this concept with earnestness and aspiration.
There are many positives outside of the intriguing concept. As one would expect, the film looks fantastic. It's great to see Cinematographer Jess Hall graduating from the likes of the great "Hot Fuzz" to a big Hollywood production like this. The score by Mychael Damma ("Life of Pi") is fittingly pounding and Zimmer-esque. And of course there's the cast. Johnny Depp might be a little subdued in the main role, mumbling his way through a keynote speech at the start of the film, and hamming it up no-end when he becomes an omnipotent AI construct later in the movie. Rebecca Hall and Paul Bettany are their usual dependable superb selves, and ever so watchable. Morgan Freeman does the "Basil Exposition" role as only he can, no surprises there. Cillian Murphy is fine as the FBI cyber-cop, but his role is cut down to its bare bones, and feels shoved to one side. Overall things look and play very well, making this a very easy watch.
Narratively, however, there are significant problems. In the second half of the film, events move with frightening pace. The whole thing feels un-necessarily rushed. One minute Max is plugging Will into the machine and happy with the idea, barely two minutes later he's thrown his hand in with R.I.F.T, the quasi-terrorist group opposed to the whole human-technology movement. Another minute Evelyn is overjoyed to have her husband "back", the next, she's terrified when Will goes all "Lawnmower Man" on her. Things go from good to bad to worse in the blink of an eye. Rather than an exploration of the initial ideas, we move to a secondary plot about nano-technology and manipulation of the environment, a plot thread which seems to come out of left field. I haven't read much about the production, but the fact that there are listed 14 producers, co-producers, or exec producers might have something to do with it.
First timer Jack Paglen's script is smart, and brimming with ideas and questions, and although the movie is rabidly uneven, I would love to see the full original screenplay. I would also love to see a three-hour cut of this film, as I feel that in its current format it misses out huge chunks of what would have been vital to the unfolding story. "Transcendence" is not bad by any stretch of the imagination, but it's not great, and what is most frustrating is that it seems like it should have been. I'm confident that Pfister will go on to make many fine films better than this. Ultimately, if you offered me "Transcendence" or "Transformers", I'd take the former over Michael Bay's brain-vacuum crash-bang nonsense any day. Give me a film with ideas. This movie isn't perfect, but it does at least have some of those, and is worth a watch for that reason alone.