Blu-ray Review Drama

The Evolution of a Blu-ray Review: Transcendence

July 22, 2014Ben MK

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Mind over matter...

When discussing science fiction, there's something to be said for the distinction between hard and soft sci-fi. So-called hard sci-fi stories are typically grounded in tangible fields of scientific study, whereas soft sci-fi tends towards the spectrum of the hypothetical and the speculative. So what does this say about Transcendence, the debut film from Wally Pfister, the protégé of Christoper Nolan, which takes the hard sci-fi concept of the technological singularity and extrapolates a head-spinning what-if scenario from it? The answer may be surprising.


The Film 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 R.I.F.T., 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, leaving him with mere weeks to live. Desperate to save her husband any way she can, 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. Setting up shop in an abandoned school, she and Max scan Will's likeness, record his voice and upload his brain patterns. And so Will's A.I. incarnation — call him Will 2.0 — is born.

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 Brightwood 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 R.I.F.T., 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, Pfister — Christopher Nolan's go-to cinematographer since Memento — populates Transcendence's crowded narrative with what seems like every sci-fi film concept 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's a fascinating premise, but the fault in the science of Transcendence is its lack thereof, as the film does little to deliver explanations to support its plot points, instead preferring to layer them one atop the other.

Its cast, which includes a handful of Nolan's frequent collaborators, is the film's 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 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.

Audio/Visual Fidelity Transcendence crosses the threshold onto Blu-ray with a technically proficient, yet flawed, A/V presentation. The most striking aspect of Warner's hi-def transfer is the gorgeous color saturation, which yields accurate fleshtones and replicates cinematographer Jess Hall's varied color palette — from the greenery outside the Caster home to the desert hues above the Brightwood Data Center — with ease. High contrast levels result in inky blacks, but they also leave shadow detail with something to be desired, as it's often difficult to visually distinguish objects in dark areas. This is most noticeable in scenes that take place within the darkened confines of Evelyn's living quarters at the Brightwood Data Center or in the abandoned mine shaft that serves as R.I.F.T.'s base of operations. Otherwise, fine detail is visible in objects such as robotic arms and computer equipment and in the swarm-like patterns of crystalline nanobots that swirl through the air, catching the light as they move. Sound-wise, the disc's DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 soundtrack excels at replicating the theatrical experience to a tee. Although the audio dynamics are fairly restrained during the first half of the film, the sound field comes alive during the film's second half, when composer Michael Danna's score shifts into action mode and the sound of automatic gunfire, mortar blasts and explosions become an almost regular occurrence. All the while, dialog and ambient effects, such as rainfall and the fluttering of nanobots, come across with crystal clarity.

Special Features Warner's Blu-ray release is complemented by the usual DVD and UltraViolet digital copies, as well as a modest 22-minute selection of HD special features, comprised of two featurettes, two promo spots, three viral videos and two trailers for the film. It begins with What is Transcendence?, a 5-minute look at the film, its key themes and the ethical questions raised, featuring brief interviews with the cast and crew, as well as clips from the film. This is followed by the 3-minute Wally Pfister: A Singular Vision, another featurette consisting of interviews and film clips, this time focusing on Pfister's skills as a director. Guarding the Threat and The Promise of A.I. are 2 and 3-minute-long promo pieces that touch on the dangers and the technologies highlighted in the film. And the bonus features are rounded off with 3 minutes of viral videos — It's Me, Singularity and R.I.F.T. — featuring narration by Depp, Freeman and Mara, respectively, and 5-minutes-worth of trailers for the film.

The Bottom Line Ultimately, Transcendence is a film that falls short of both hard sci-fi and the soft sci-fi expectations, spreading itself thin trying to accommodate one too many ideas but being too fuzzy on its own logic to sustain the weight of its ambitious plot. However, Warner's Blu-ray release somewhat makes up for it, with a fairly pleasing, albeit imperfect, A/V presentation and a light assortment of bonus features. And in the end, that makes Transcendence at least worth experimenting with on Blu-ray.  Ben Mk

Disc Breakdown
The Film  —  
Audio/Visual Fidelity  —  
Special Features  —  

* Reviewer's note: Portions of this Blu-ray review were adapted from my original review of the theatrical release, published on April 18th, 2014.

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