Count me as one of the few people who don’t think Transcendence sucked balls.
I admit, given the hype surrounding the script and the star-studded cast, that the film is a relative disappointment, but I still found it to be an intriguing take on the man-vs-computer concept that’s thought-provoking on some levels and at least never boring.
Johnny Depp plays Dr Will Caster, a brilliant scientist who plans to develop a sentient computer that he predicts will create a technological singularity, or in his words, “transcendence”. His wife, Evelyn, is played by the wonderful Rebecca Hall, and his best friend is Max, played by Paul Bettany.
Of course, there are people out there somewhat uneasy about the possibility of such a creation, and they plan an attempt to derail the whole thing. One thing leads to another and soon Will is forced to insert his consciousness into a quantum computer in a attempt to cheat death. I don’t think it’s a spoiler to say that it worked, and the rest of the movie is all about the consequences of this and questioning whether the computer really is Will’s consciousness or just an imitation of it.
Trascendence, made for $100 million and made only $90 million at the box office, was both a commercial and critical failure for debut director Wally Pfister, previously best known for his cinematography work on Chris Nolan films (Memento, Batman Trilogy, Inception). Despite the film’s unique visual flair, the film was savaged for its lack of logic — even within its limited sci-fi story universe — and bad science, and it also didn’t help that it was released amid the recent Johnny Depp backlash.
For me, Transcendence may have failed to deliver the philosophical sci-fi experience it was trying to achieve, but it’s still not a bad film about the dangers and limits of technology and artificial intelligence. I thought it started off well in drawing audiences in and developing the relationships between the characters, which I thought proved crucial down the line in heightening and contrasting their feelings and emotions.
It’s far from the first sci-fi film to tackle the “control or be controlled by technology” premise, but Transcendence does feature some interesting ideas that I hadn’t seen or thought about before. I won’t give those things way except to say that it takes us not only out of the cyberworld and the world of the physical, but also ventures into the world of the metaphysical. The ramifications take us much farther than say something like 2008’s Eagle Eye or even last year’s brilliant Her (which is a vastly superior film, by the way).
Though the science is extremely sketchy (even for someone as clueless about science as me), I thought both the script (by Jack Paglen) and the direction did a fairly good job of blurring the specifics and using misdirection to fudge things so we simply have to take what is happening on screen at face value. The problem is that fudging can only take audiences so far, and at some stage the whole facade begins to crumble because the computer keeps doing impossible things on the one hand but doing impossibly stupid/illogical things on the other. And once you start to ask yourself why a computer this intelligent and omniscient would do this or not do that, it’s too late — the entire premise of the film collapses in a hurry. The irony is that for what is supposed to be a thinking-man’s sci-fi, thinking too much is the last thing you should do if you want to remain engaged.
That’s a deal killer for most viewers, but let’s face it, it’s not the first time a sci-fi film has failed to make sense. In my humble opinion, the obvious holes are what prevent Transcendence from being a great sci-fi, rather than what make it a completely unwatchable movie. There are enough positive things about it to not call the film a waste of time.
For starters, the eerie feeling the film generates is genuine. While it’s not a horror film per se, some of the things the computer is capable of in the film are genuinely creepy and will make you think twice about handing your life over to artificial intelligence. Secondly, the cast is awesome and contains big names I didn’t even realise were in it. In addition to the aforementioned trio of Depp, Hall and Bettany, there’s also Morgan Freeman, Cillian Murphy and Kate Mara. None of them get to do much, but a bit of added star power never hurt anybody (except in those Expendables movies). And thirdly, the film is stylish, imaginative and not as predictable as you’d expect. It’s well-made, solidly paced over the course of its 120-minute running time, and is never in danger of being a snoozer. That’s already more than you can say about most sci-fi flicks these days.
At the end of the day, Transcendence is never quite as intelligent or philosophical as it set out to be, nor is it as action-packed or exciting as a traditional sci-fi blockbuster. That said, I think those who approach it with an open mind will be pleasantly surprised by how much it has to offer.
3.5 stars out of 5