IN CINEMAS NOW
RUNNING TIME: 117 min
REVIEWED BY: Dr Lenera, Official HCF Critic
Dr. Will Caster is an artificial intelligence researcher and part of a team of scientists striving to create a machine that possesses sentience and collective intelligence, an event which Will calls “Transcendence”. Just after a presentation led by his wife Evelyn to attract potential sponsors, Will is shot by an anti-AI extremist, an event taking place simultaneously with terrorist attacks on every other AI research facility in the world. Will survives the initial attack, but the bullet is laced with radioactive material, which will eventually shut down Will’s vital organs and kill him. Evelyn comes up with a plan to upload Will’s consciousness, using the “quantum processors” of the AI program they were working on. This would allow him to survive in digital form, stay with her, and complete the project. His best friend Max Waters, also a researcher, questions the wisdom of this choice, saying an incomplete download of Will’s consciousness would not be Will but something else that might be dangerous….
Transcendence is already a major flop, and there’s been much discussion of things like why a first time director [former Christopher Nolan cinematographer Wally Pfister] was given a $100 budget, or how Johnny Depp has become something akin to box office poison unless it’s Tim Burton or Jack Sparrow. I wonder if Nolan had actually been the director, and Depp dressed up in a superhero outfit, it may have been a success? Before Transcendence began, I had the odd feeling that I would rave about the movie and have yet another whinge about the moron masses and their increasingly refusal to flock to things that are interesting and different. The film seems to have been picked on by thecritics and ignored by the public. How I love the underdog and love making a case for it!. Well, Transcendence is no neglected masterpiece, and makes a large number of mistakes which prevent it from being as compelling as it should. It is, however, a very interesting science-fiction thriller that asks a lot of questions and has a lot to recommend it. It’s certainly considerably better than you’ve been led to believe.
Of course most of its ideas are very old and have been a staple of the genre for ages, and I don’t just mean the countless machines-go-wrong films that we’ve been given over the years. For much of the time Transcendence seems like yet another variation on Frankenstein, warning of the dangers of humans playing God, but it’s also very timely in its examination of technology and our relation to it, sometimes seeming like a strange cousin to Her [there are even some very similar scenes such as somebody having conversations with a voice]. What makes Transcendence distinctive is that is it’s more even-handed than usual and isn’t just the typical fear-mongering. It asks questions such as how much is too much technology in a world which seems to be developing faster and faster with new innovative ways to live our lives and possibly improve them, and considers them intelligently. Many critics have called Transcendence confusing, and it has a tendency to transmit its ideas and tell its story in not the slickest of ways, but its chief final message, which is not the one you would expect, was loud and clear to me and should be to anybody with a brain. All in all, there is quite a lot to think about here, and we do seem to be going through a phase where not many audiences want to think [though of course there are anomalies like Inception, which I guess the studio was thinking of when they green-lit this project].
However one cannot ignore that the film does do some things wrong, such as its structure whereby it opens by showing us a future where there is obviously no longer any internet. Something has happened to destroy it, and we are presented with images like a laptop lying around with a smashed screen and a computer propping up a door in a world which has clearly come to something of a halt. Let alone the huge amount of people who virtually live their lives on their phone and can’t go for more than five minutes without checking it, our world seems to be almost totally reliant on the web and the thought that it could be destroyed is a scary one. Some stories work when the main bulk is in flashback, but Transcendence would have worked better if it had cut the opening scene and brought in the possibility that the internet could be destroyed later on to terrifying effect. This is what the film ends up being like for much of its duration. The ideas are there, but not always presented in the best possible way. Jack Paglen’s script had been on the Black List of best unpublished screenplays in Hollywood, and it’s got some great stuff in it, but also needed a bit of work. Pfister seems to have made some considerable changes, and I don’t think they were all for the better.
In a manner more reminiscent of many 70’s science-fiction pictures rather than the 90’s ones which it initially appears to take more inspiration from, Transcendence is very slow paced for much of its length, drifting along in a very laid-back, even relaxing manner. The story quickly brings in a variety of elements but never really speeds up until near the end, where, after not quite enough tension has been built up despite things really getting bad, it suddenly becomes an action movie for a while, but a rather half-hearted one. It seems that they felt obliged to throw in some shooting and explosions for the benefit of the audience, but it jars with what has come before, and, considering that the film doesn’t now appear to be making much money anyway, it obviously didn’t help. A gradual build-up to a thrilling climax is what this film should have had, not a sudden switch into action movie mode. At least there’s a genuinely touching final scene between Will and Evelyn which had this critic satisfyingly moved, proof that the picture was working at that point. In fact, some of the best scenes throughout the film are those between the wife who wants to keep her husband alive no matter what, and the computer with some human consciousness. These scenes have a palpable sense of loss to them, though could have gone a bit further in some areas without turning into Demonseed. Is Will really alive in some way? Are we seeing a computer with human feelings or a computer pretending to have human feelings? I don’t think it’s a problem that we have to decide for ourselves.
The film’s characters, be they Will, Evelyn, an FBI agent, some scientists, or some terrorists, do seem to be stupid and set themselves up for failure, though this may have been deliberate. More jarring is that near the beginning of the film we witness an explosion that kills some people in an office, then see somebody shoot another at point blank range before killing himself, events which we are told are being replicated throughout the world. This is soon revealed to be the work of anti-technology terrorists, folk who soon after we seem to be asked to sympathise with despite they being world-wide murderers. It’s rather insulting and offensive, though some of the things in Transcendence which initially appear to be simplistic and even dumb are later turned on their heads in quite a clever manner. There are obvious borrowings from the likes of The Lawnmower Man and even Invasion Of The Body Snatchers [actually come to think of it it’s more like It Came From Outer Space] but not too much to ruin the film. More irritating are also some terrible CGI effects towards the end which never looks like they’re part of the main film.
Depp is strange here, and I don’t mean typical Johnny Depp strange. Some of the time he seems totally committed to his role, and sometimes he just seems like he’d rather be somewhere else. In any case, it’s Rebecca Hall who gives the stand-out performance, making her often foolhardy actions believable with her often intense acting. Pfister’s direction doesn’t exhibit much notable style and he should have really began his directorial career with something less ambitious, though Transcendence seems oddly constricted at times, despite the whole world eventually being in danger, often keeping to a few select locations even while really interesting stuff may be occurring off-screen [shouldn’t we have seen, for example, more evidence of Will’s presence on the internet and the effect it has?]. It’s really quite good though, probably one of those films which you may not enjoy too much while you watch it but which may grow in estimation afterwards when you start to think about it. I have a feeling it may be better regarded in years to come, like many visionary science-fiction pictures.