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TRANSCENDENCE (2014) review

April 20, 2014

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written by: Jack Paglen

produced by: Broderick Johnson, Andrew A. Kosorve, Kare Cohen, Marisa Polvino, Annie Marter, David Valdes & Aaron Ryder

directed by: Wally Pfister

rating: PG-13 (for sci-fi action and violence, some bloody images, brief strong language and sensuality)

runtime: 119 min.

U. S. release date: April 18, 2014

 

Count me among those who have been anticipating the directorial debut of Wally Pfister. The long-time cinematographer for Christopher Nolan has had plenty of experience behind the camera, but “Transcendence” is the Chicagoan’s first shot at directing a film. One would think that such a director would offer some absorbing visuals at least, but unfortunately there’s nothing outstanding to look at here.

A leader in artificial intelligence research, Dr. Will Caster (Johnny Depp), has visualized a world where computers are sentient beings, capable of independent thought, free of the limitations and frailties of humans. His wife and fellow researcher, Evelyn (Rebecca Hall) has a more altruistic goal in mind, believing that their A.I. can make the world a better place. Their friend and colleague, Max (Paul Bettany), is more hesitant though, knowing the ramifications of such a breakthrough in technology.

An extremist anti-technology organization named R.I.F.T. (Revolutionary Independence From Technology), led by a young woman named Bree (Kate Mara), shoot Will after a presentation while simultaneously attacking select computer labs home to other researchers. He survives but soon learns the bullet was radioactive and will slowly shut down all his organs. Turns out this terrorist group is also anti-human.

 

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With Will’s body deteriorating and his mind still very much alive, anyone familiar with the sci-fi tropes can tell where this is going. Sure enough, Evelyn comes up with the idea to upload her husband’s consciousness in order to keep him alive with help from a curious albeit reluctant Max. The process works, of course, and Evelyn and Max are in awe at this game-changing feat. That is, until Will displays a hunger for more and more information and power, ascending to an omnipresence level. He amasses wealth, leading Evelyn, their confidant, Joseph Tagger (Morgan Freeman) and an investigating FBI agent, Donald Buchanan (Cillian Murphy), to a run-down California town he’s purchased in the desert with the idea of digitally and physically creating a utopia.

Harvesting solar power, Will creates an underground research facility with Evelyn’s assistance, using nanotechnology to literally improve the human race and the environment. Curing the locals of blindness and other ailments and turning some of them, like contractor Martin (Clifton Collins, Jr.), into superhuman specimens. Things get creepy (or creepier) though when Will begins to extend his reach into every aspect of life. Conflicted yet concerned, Evelyn gets pulled into her husband’s network, while Max teams with Bree in an effort to stop Will before the he pulls the plug on humanity.

Despite an intriguing premise, whatever apparent promise found in the screenplay is absent on the big-screen. The first half of the movie poses some natural questions about the prospects of artificial intelligence and includes some typical warnings about technology and power, but then forgets about them in its attempt to create a sci-fi actioner. Questions are posed that are either left unanswered or are given obvious answers.

For example, at a Ted Talk-like presentation near the start of the movie, Depp’s Will is asked if he is trying to create his own god with his A.I. It’s a question that obviously foreboding to the rest of the film. It’s too bad Will’s answer, “Isn’t that what mankind has always done?” isn’t probed more throughout the rest of the movie.

Unfortunately, screenwriter Jack Paglen (making his debut with his blacklisted script) is more concerned with making the most out of his $100 million budget that Warner Bros. bestowed him. Which finds the second half consumed with military involvement, Bree’s anti-tech rebels and Will’s e-drones, deleting all the legitimate moral dilemmas and questions the movie originally posed. Can an individual still be considered human after they leave their body? Where does one draw the line when playing God?

 

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Clearly, “Transcendence” is a movie with potential, but its lethargic pacing handicaps its possibilities. It could’ve either been trippier or more intellectual. It could’ve focused on the political ramifications of Will 2.0‘s actions or given us characters that we could connect with. Instead, the movie does little with too many half-baked ideas.

The movie’s ambition translates into confusion. I kept wondering what a director like Steven Soderbergh would’ve done with the material, especially considering how deftly he handled a global pandemic in “Contagion”, a film I returned to in my post-viewing “Transcendence” thoughts. Soderbergh balanced the stories of several characters, allowing us time to get to know them and how the spreading pandemic affected them in different ways. It would’ve been nice to see Paglen and Pfister take a similar approach here, providing viewers a glimpse of Will’s far-reaching end game. They touch on that slightly toward the movie’s end, but it’s too little too late.

Besides lacking originality, Paglen’s screenplay doesn’t know what to do with his characters or how people talk in general (as opposed to typical movie-speak like “You just don’t get it, do you?”). You can have an assembly of fine actors, but if they don’t just wind up standing around, delivering limp lines, it benefits no one.

Some moviegoers may be drawn to “Transcendence” on account of Depp being the lead, but they’ll be disappointed. While any break from Burton and Jack Sparrow is more than welcome, Depp is lacking a pulse here or any sign of interest in Dr. Will Cather. Besides displaying zero chemistry with his wife, it says a lot that he’s more interesting once he goes digital and pops up on computer monitors. As for the other actors, Hall, an actress I’ve liked in the past, has the best material to work with (although even her characterization is nonsensical). After committing to upload her husband, she then has to comprehend marriage to a digital partner and struggle with unplugging him when things go south. Hall does her best to be the emotional anchor, despite the escalating silliness of the plot around her. The veteran presence of Freeman brings us what we’d expect and Murphy is relegated to more or less a cameo (to be honest, these two feel like they’re along to support Pfister, since they’ve all worked together in Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy). It feels like the movie was to be told from Bettany’s character’s perspective, but he’s pushed to the wayside as the movie progresses, which is fine considering his character isn’t really that compelling anyway.

Pfister begins and ends with a near-future setting, showing us yet another dystopian environment, where life is better off the grid. It also makes the mistake of showing that there will be survivals, so when we see Will threatening humanity, the suspense isn’t what it could be. The director is unsuccessful at making a Nolan-esque thriller. The overriding problem with “Transcendence” though is that it’s boring. As I watched it, I found myself thinking “The Lawnmower Man” and “Superman III” did a better job at handling the threat of technology.

 

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RATING: **

 

 

 

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