Drama Film Review

Singularly Self-Aware Film Review: Transcendence

April 18, 2014Ben MK

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Sentience and sensibility

By Ben Mk

Artificial intelligence has been a staple of the sci-fi genre since 2001: A Space Odyssey. From seminal classics like The Terminator and The Matrix, which have used the subject matter to explore avenues of philosophy and action, to recent films and television shows like Her and Person of Interest, which have blended it with elements of romance and government paranoia, A.I. has served as the framework for many a compelling story. Transcendence is the latest film to tackle this complex field of scientific study, and it may just be the most ambitious film to do so yet.

Like most sci-fi yarns, the starting point for Transcendence is a near-future, post-apocalyptic vision of our own society — one almost completely devoid of electricity and, hence, technology. But to find out how things got this way, the narrative travels backwards in time five years, where we meet Will and Evelyn Caster (Johnny Depp and Rebecca Hall), a prominent husband-and-wife pair of A.I. researchers, and their friend, fellow scientist Max Waters (Paul Bettany).

After presenting their research at a scientific symposium, Will is shot by a member of the radical extremist group "Revolutionary Independence From Technology" — better know as RIFT, and led by self-styled anarchist Bree (Kate Mara) — whose members view the work of Will and his colleagues as a threat to humanity. And they'll go to any lengths — even murder — to stop what he calls transcendence, the creation of an artificial intelligence more powerful than the sum of all human intelligence. Although he survives the attempted assassination, Will soon learns that the bullet used in the attack was laced with a radioactive isotope, and that the radiation now coursing through his body has left him with mere weeks to live. Desperate to save her husband in some way, shape or form, Evelyn proposes something never before tried with a human subject: uploading his consciousness into a machine so that he can live on after the death of his physical body. She and Max set up shop in an abandoned school and get to work, scanning Will's likeness, recording his voice and uploading his brain patterns; and thus, Will's A.I. incarnation — call him Will 2.0 — is born.

The film's buildup to this point in the story seems to drag on for an eternity, but that may be because its second and third acts advance the storyline by leaps and bounds, almost faster than the audience can process the new plot developments. Not long after becoming self-aware, Will 2.0 asks that Evelyn upload him to the Internet, to satisfy his growing appetite for information. And soon, he becomes omnipresent — going viral, essentially — even manipulating financial markets, quickly amassing enough wealth to buy a small town. In fact, that's exactly what he and Evelyn do, purchasing the sleepy desert town of Brighton so that they can build a sprawling underground research facility, complete with a field of solar panel arrays to power it. There, Will 2.0 continues to thrive, developing nanotechnology so sophisticated that he's able to wield the submicroscopic robots to reconstruct anything — or anyone — he desires. His God-like power makes him a target not only for RIFT, but also for the US government; but by the time Evelyn realizes that he must be stopped, it may already be too late.

Working from a script by Jack Paglen (who's also penning the upcoming Battlestar Galactica reboot), first-time director Wally Pfister — Christopher Nolan's go-to cinematographer since Memento — crams so many concepts into Transcendence's crowded narrative that the film quickly devolves into a catch-all for every sci-fi film gimmick from the past fifty years. From body snatchers to the Borg, the story — a metaphysical version of RoboCop meets The Lawnmower Man — borrows liberally from other, more cerebral works (and even from those not so cerebral, like Independence Day); and for most of its runtime, it plays out like a precursor to every film and television show set in a dystopian future where sentient machines have usurped mankind (The Terminator and The Matrix included). Admittedly, it sounds like a fascinating premise, in theory, but the fault in the science of Transcendence is its lack thereof. The film just doesn't bother delivering any credible explanations to support its plot points, instead preferring to layer them one atop the other, resulting in a sci-fi stew so overloaded with ingredients that it ends up dulling the audience's senses rather than piquing their interest.

Its cast, which includes a few of Nolan's frequent collaborators, is the film's one bright spot. However, it's not what you might think. Although Depp has been known to chew the scenery to great effect in other films — and you would think that as a megalomaniacal artificial being, this would be the perfect opportunity for him to do so again — his performance here (though somewhat creepy and unsettling) is deadpan from start to finish. And as one half of the film's tragic love story, that would be a problem if not for Hall's ability to extract emotion from their scenes together with her performance, running the gamut from desperation to fear, anger and adoration. Likewise, Bettany does his best to counter the increasing absurdity of the plot by turning in a convincing performance as a man who struggles with the moral and ethical dilemmas of the situation, as does Mara, who brings subtle depth to her role as an anarchist with more to her than meets the eye. The rest of the cast — which includes Morgan Freeman and Cillian Murphy in relatively thankless roles as a couple of government sleuths, as well as Clifton Collins Jr. and Cole Hauser in minor parts — make the best of the material they're given, which is probably the same that can be said of Pfister as well.

The Bottom Line

To paraphrase something Johnny Depp's character says in the film, "There's not a lot of logic, but there's plenty of irony." That, in a nutshell, summarizes Transcendence, a film that spreads itself thin trying to accommodate one too many ideas, but is ultimately too fuzzy on its own logic to sustain the weight of its ambitious plot. It isn't a terrible movie, it's just rather unremarkable. Sci-fi junkies will still want to flock to it, and its cast is undeniably impressive; but with a title that seems to imply an incomparable filmgoing experience, it falls short of expectations. [★★★]

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