Directed by: Wally Pfister
Premise: A computer scientist (Johnny Depp) who is working on an artificially intelligent computer system is fatally wounded by an anti-technology terrorist organization. His wife and fellow researcher (Rebecca Hall) upload his consciousness to the computer system but the resulting life form turns on the human race.
What Works: At their best, science fiction films dramatize compelling philosophical problems and provide insight into the intersection of technology and the human experience. Despite its considerable faults, the filmmakers of Transcendence should be given some credit for trying to deal with complicated issues such as identity and the mind-body problem. At its core the film has a compelling premise and this isn’t a stupid or cynical film like Transformers and its ilk. It is also worth mentioning that Transcendence puts a woman in the lead role. Although the face of Johnny Depp was placed on the advertising notices, the real protagonist of Transcendence is played by Rebecca Hall. She is Doctor Frankenstein to Depp’s Monster and like Mary Shelley’s story, Transcendence is really about the creator, not the creation.
What Doesn’t: As interesting as the premise of Transcendence may be, the film recalls many other and better movies such as 2001: A Space Odyssey, The Matrix, Demon Seed, and especially The Lawnmower Man. The evil and self-aware computer system is a familiar trope of the science fiction genre and when it is done well it can allow for creative visuals and compelling stories. But Transcendence never manages to be very engaging. The concept is inherently heady and probably lends itself better to prose fiction than it does to cinema. Nevertheless, movies with similar concepts have succeeded by presenting the audience with a gripping story that emphasized its characters, by fully exploring the human implications of the premise, and by using innovative imagery that gave the audience a new visual experience. Transcendence fails on all accounts. Despite a dense plot and an ambitious conceit, the movie is boring. The narrative moves along at a sluggish pace, only to leap forward in time in the middle of the picture and the temporal jumps exacerbate the story’s already limp tension and its logical flaws. After Johnny Depp’s character is transferred to the digital world, his wife, played by Rebecca Hall, sets up a laboratory in a small western town where the synthetic consciousness grows more powerful and eventually becomes a threat to humanity. There is no conflict throughout the bulk of the film and the computer system is not a threat until nearly the end of the movie. That could work if the middle of the film explored the transformation of the characters but everyone is flat. Rebecca Hall’s character is in the mold of Dr. Frankenstein but she is much more like a spouse trapped in an abusive relationship. However, the filmmakers don’t realize that and neither Hall nor Depp have anything to do. For that matter, the rest of the cast of Transcendence, which includes Paul Bettany, Cillian Murphy, Kate Mara, and Morgan Freeman, is wasted. They have nothing to do because the filmmakers have no idea who these people are or what motivates their actions. The philosophical problem is similarly underdeveloped. The movie’s premise has potential but unlike Christopher Nolan’s Inception, the ideas are overwhelmed by explosions and gunfire and when it reaches the climax Transcendence becomes plainly ridiculous with nanotechnology doing whatever the filmmakers need it to do. At the very least, Transcendence should provide some unique visuals but here too the filmmakers come up short. Nothing about this film is distinguished from so many other cyber thrillers and science fiction shoot-‘em-ups.
Bottom Line: The filmmakers of Transcendence try for something big but they fall short and the film is a spectacular failure. This is an example of a high concept movie that fails because not enough effort was invested in the basic mechanics of the storytelling.
Episode: #488 (April 27, 2014)