Transcendence (2014): Not Very Transcendent (Review)

Where do the limits of humanity lie? How far can technology go? Can a computer be self-aware and be a sentient being? What is the difference between a human and a machine? Can a man and a machine live together as one? What does it mean to be human?

These are among the question the film Transcendence is dealing with, directly or indirectly. In it a brilliant scientist named William Caster (Johnny Depp) is trying to create an supercomputer with an artificial intelligence that has, in his own words, “greater [power] than the collective intelligence of every person born in the history of the world”, effectively trying to create a god of sorts. But when he gets attacked and poisoned by terrorists and has a short time to live he has his conscience uploaded into a computer which makes him able to live on, after his death. Through the power of the internet (enabling him to access the whole world, in essence) he becomes, with the help of his wife (Rebecca Hall), the most powerful being on earth and starts to make advances that may change life as we know it. Of course, not everyone agrees with what he’s doing.

Transcendence is a movie of great ideas, a very ambitious and thought-provoking film that can be seen as a sort of flip-side to The Terminator and The Matrix. So to speak it’s a more “realistic” and feasible version of how the machines could take over and end (or at least drastically change) life as we know it.

But, as ambitious as this film is and as smart as it wants to be, it sadly doesn’t live up to its potential. While the ideas are fascinating the execution leaves you wanting and the results are often muddled. Wally Pfister may be a great cinematographer (having shot all of Christopher Nolan’s films, among other things) but it’s clear from this that his talents lie mainly there as his direction here is perfunctory, unimaginative and lacks character. There’s little style here and it the whole thing feels generic and uninspired, for a movie directed by a cinematographer Transcendence has surprisingly little in the way of memorable visuals and often just looks drab and dull. Maybe he should have let his friend Christopher Nolan direct this (he did serve as executive producer).

It also never really manages to make you care very much about any its characters, as none of them have very strong personalities and most of them are pretty one-dimensional. Dr. Will Casey doesn’t really come off as much more than a “generic brilliant mad scientist” and Depp seems at times vaguely disinterested playing him, sometimes talking like a bored Marlon Brando. Still, most of the cast can’t be faulted, especially Hall and Paul Bettany who bring a little gravitas to the film. But the actors just don’t have much to work with, Cillian Murphy for instance is rather wasted as “generic FBI dude”. Also Morgan Freeman is…Morgan Freeman.

The dialogue here is so on-the-nose at times, and the drama often so hackneyed and obvious, it feels a bit like Pfister simply shot the first of draft of Jack Paglen‘s script. It’s full of great ideas but it feels barely fleshed-out. It’s also incredibly lacking in ambiguity in terms of plotting and storytelling. Pretty much everything is on the surface, for a movie about such complicated things as artificial intelligence and nanotechnology it’s surprisingly simplistic. This is the kind of movie where people talk about “shutting off the internet” (is that even possible?) and where people are very easily convinced to change their minds just because the story needs it, even if it’s not credible for the character.

Still, it’s worth pondering all the ideas Transcendence is working with, even if the film muddles them quite a bit. In it we have a human who uploads his conscience onto a computer which results in the melding of man and machine to create some sort of superbeing who manages, in a way, to make the world a better place. But of course it comes at a certain cost, the sacrifice of “humanity” among other things though that’s still debatable. Then we have the terrorists who are indeed fighting for a good cause (against the over-emphasis on technology in life) but maybe not doing it the best way (by killing people, often brutally). The movie does make the viewers sympathies shift between those two groups and it’s really a matter of opinion who are the heroes and who are the villains, both parties are in essence both heroes and villains and yet neither. Mostly they’re just human, with all the good and bad things that come with that. This is not your average Hollywood action flick with clear-cut heroes and villains.

These are some ambitious and smart ideas Pfister and first-time screenwriter Paglen are working with here and it’s such a pity they drag it down with such muddled storytelling and uninspired drama. It’s a thought-provoking movie that still manages to neither be very thrilling nor move you in any way and sorely lacks a sense of humor. It’s filled with very able actors who do what they can and help make the movie watchable, but it could have been so much more. At least it’s got one great line which is a telling comment on our modern life: “I haven’t handwritten anything since high-school”.

The Good: It’s refreshing to see a big budget Hollywood film where it’s not always clear who to sympathize for and who the real hero or villain is.
The Bad: All the attempts at sentimentality which mostly come off as cheesy. It’s yet another movie which tells us that love is what makes us human, with a jackhammer.
The Annoying: There’s nothing transcendent about Transcendence.

Overall: 5.1/10

Written By Atli

Atli is a film geek from Iceland who dreams of being a great film director, but until then he’s going to criticize the works of other film directors, great and not-so-great alike. His favorite actor is Sam Rockwell and his favorite directors are (among others) Robert Altman, Quentin Tarantino, Paul Thomas Anderson, Billy Wilder, Woody Allen and Stanley Kubrick. Atli also loves pizza, travelling and reading good books.

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  • rich

    usually, when someone like nolan produces but doesn’t direct, it’s because he thinks it might work but it’s too risky. so he attaches his name, finances the film, but keeps a distance so that if the film flops, he can say, “well, if i had directed, it would have been better,” and if it does well, he can still claim credit and say, “i knew it was a good project, but i was too busy to direct myself.”

    the trailers seemed dull enough that i knew i wouldn’t see it. if you don’t have enough for a good trailer, you don’t have nearly enough for a good film.