Transcendence (2014) / Sci Fi-Thriller

MPAA Rated: PG-13 for sci-fi action and violence, some bloody images, brief strong language and sensuality
Running Time: 119 min.

Cast: Johnny Depp, Rebecca Hall, Morgan Freeman, Cillian Murphy, Kate Mara, Clifton Collins Jr., Cole Hauser
Small role: Xander Berkeley, Lukas Haas
Director: Wally Pfister
Screenplay: Jack Paglen

Review published April 20, 2014

Transcendence marks the first directorial effort from producer Christopher Nolan's favorite cinematographer Wally Pfister (The Dark Knight, The Dark Knight Rises), and if it proves anything, it's that a man with an eye for how to shoot a scene doesn't always equate to excellence in how to set up a story, or to get quality performances from his actors.  While, conceptually, Transcendence has enough going for it to make it an interesting view for fans of thrillers with a heavy science fiction bent, the directions Pfister eventually goes with these ideas aren't nearly as riveting.  In effect, it's a movie with a lot to say but without the articulateness in how to say it.

Johnny Depp (The Lone Ranger, Dark Shadows) stars as Berkeley scientist Dr. Will Caster, who, along with his wife and research partner Evelyn (Hall, Closed Circuit), has been working on a way to create large networks run by highly advanced artificial intelligence, hoping to use his colleague Max Waters' (Bettany, Iron Man 3) software to upload contents of one's brain into such an intelligence to develop its sentient traits.  Unfortunately, that futuristic idea isn't so popular among a radical group of terrorists who fear that the self-aware machines will be wildly unpredictable and potentially destructive, and who've taken to destroy every lab developing such a project.  Caster soon becomes the victim of shooting that he would recover from were the bullet not laced with poison that has spread radiation into his body that gives him only weeks left to live. 

Evelyn won't give up on her husband, using the new tech to begin the upload process of Will before he expires, and lo and behold, the computer begins to speak to them with the voice and face, as well as memories, of Will himself.  Will's ability to process goes up exponentially now that he can connect to computers all over the world, but with the terrorists out to take him down, they set up camp in a remote California town called Brightwood to start their own massive facility using technology light-years more advanced than humans have been able to construct.  But as "Will" becomes more powerful, so is the perceived threat to humanity, and soon it becomes clear that a war for the future of the planet is about to erupt.

First-time screenwriter Jack Paglen provides this high-concept story, which borrows many concepts from quite a few popular classic sci-fi works, including "Star Trek: TNG". The problem with the film isn't in its placement in the realm of science fiction films as much as its placement in the real world, where the plot necessitates a triple-jump for every leap in logic to get us from point A to Z. For instance, the film pushes forward the notion that scientists don't give any thought or research whatsoever to the ramifications of their inventions before unleashing them on the world at large. However, a research facility at a major university is always under such constant scrutiny, lofty personal goals are even less likely to be achieved at all because it isn't a setting conducive to such reckless, singular behavior -- especially in an environment where major acts of terrorism against that very kind of research is running rampant in the world.

Despite a certain niftiness, where Pfister and Paglen go wrong in their storytelling starts with the smallness of the stage upon which the events are set, given that the stakes are massively global.  The computerized Will has the power of a god after a couple of years, including the ability to heal people and 'transcend' them into a hive mentality in which he can control people as if they were all extensions of him.  And yet, it always feels like what he's doing is only affecting a small circle of people.  The entire US government is represented by one agent, played by Cillian Murphy (In Time).  The same can be said for how Cole Hauser's (A Good Day to Die Hard) character is the embodiment of the US law enforcement and military. 

Where are the world leaders?  Why are they attacking a god-like force that commands its own seemingly immortal, ultra-strong army with couple of dozen men with puny mortars and cannons instead of a major air strike, or, given the remoteness of its desert locale, a nuclear device?  Shakespeare once wrote, "All the world's a stage," and in Paglen's script, it feels like all of the world could literally fit in the confines of a small stage.  We just don't feel like the stakes are very high, despite knowing that what Will can unleash on the world is a "god" created from mankind.

And that's really the fascinating thing that the film dabbles into but is too afraid to explore with much depth: what if humanity had the capability of actually creating "God" -- all-seeing, all-knowing, with the capability to heal and protect people, and to rid the world of hunger, strife, war and pollution?  Would we be better off with such an omnipotent entity in the world if we could create it, or is humanity being the one who hold dominion over the world the ideal that we should strive to attain?  Such fascinating concepts are indeed on the table, but wrong-headed decisions are made to ramp up the commercial appeal of the film instead, perverting this erudite philosophical wrangling into just another overblown action-thriller.

One other major mistake is in the casting of Johnny Depp in the lead role.  Certainly he has proven to be a huge box office draw over the past decade or two, but those are when he is playing wacky characters in offbeat comedic movies.  When Depp has to play a normal guy in a real-world scenario, his track record isn't remotely close in terms of being charismatic or romantic, and more often than not, Depp looks as though he is sleepwalking just trying to prove he can act like an everyman.  Plus, after the first half hour, his presence is, more or less, just his face on a computer screen, as if he were Skyping in his performance (speaking of, can anyone explain, without making his scientist wife seem like a moron, why Caster's virtual avatar chooses to wear glasses?)

This proves to be especially detrimental to Transendence in that the emotional core of the film relies on our ability to feel the undying love of Will and Evelyn, and as there are absolutely no sparks generated between Depp and Hall whatsoever, that missing vital component means that the film must rely on thrills and action to generate momentum, and Pfister just isn't up to the task.  Meanwhile, a fine supporting cast feels a bit wasted in roles that serve little purpose save to push forward the plot to its ultimate destination.

Transcendence maintains a modicum of watchability throughout, thanks to its tantalizing ideas, but it would be difficult, given the cast, budget, and lofty aims of the film, to not ultimately consider it a substantial disappointment that it ends up feeling so clunky and conventional.  The real problem is that it's ostensibly a smart movie made by smart people, but dumb movie plotting and character motivations infect the story like a crippling virus, and the film is never able to "transcend" its very conventional story arc, trading in fascinating concepts for unconvincing romance and a mundane action-movie finale.

Qwipster's rating:

2014 Vince Leo