Another film from my most anticipated list of 2014 was released this past week, and for the last couple of months I've been hoping that Wally Pfister's directorial debut would be as mind-blowing as it had the potential to be. Transcendence has an extremely high-concept plot, a cavalcade of talented actors, and had Christopher Nolan's name attached (if only as an Executive Producer). Needless to say I had pretty high expectations for this movie from the man behind the lens of some of my favorite films of all time. Having said that, my anticipation took a sucker punch to the gut when the first wave of reviews starting coming in on Rottentomatoes.com (currently at a devastating 19%). Even after writing a feature article and speaking to the director personally about the film, I entered my viewing last Thursday with extremely tempered expectations.
Dr. Will Caster and his wife are working on the first ever sentient artificial intelligence, presenting about the aspirations of each of their projects before an audience of potential benefactors for their research. Not everyone shares their enthusiasm for technological advancement, however, as demonstrated by the eco-terrorist organization known as R.I.F.T. Following the presentation, one of the members of this anti-technology group shoots Will with a radioactive bullet, guaranteeing the scientist's death in a few short weeks. Unable to let her husband go, Evelyn instead works with a fellow scientist to upload Will's consciousness into their preexisting AI technology so as to preserve as much of him as possible. The project is ultimately a success, but the question remains - how much of this new super-intelligence is Will, and can it be trusted?
This movie has a lot of really interesting ideas to explore, and I was really excited to see where it would take them. Unfortunately, they really ended up going nowhere. For such a controversial and intriguing subject, I couldn't believe we didn't get more examples of good or bad applications for such a powerful technological advancement. The viewpoints offered by the film are those of people for it and people against it without any explanations or explorations as to why they felt that way.
As much as I hate to admit it (because I'm a huge fan of his), I have to lay most of the blame for this movie's problems at the feet of Wally Pfister. Being a first-time director has got to be a huge challenge in any movie, let alone and incredibly ambitious sci-fi blockbuster with A-listers like Johnny Depp and Morgan Freeman. It's a little frustrating when most of the individual aspects of a film like this work on their own but they just don't fit together into a cohesive and satisfying whole. Balancing and integrating all of the different parts of a production is totally the director's responsibility, and it just felt like Pfister was a little overwhelmed. His inexperience can be felt throughout the film, but particularly during moments of humor. The actors looked a little lost whenever they were supposed to say something even moderately amusing, even those with extensive comedic chops (Depp, Freeman, Bettany, etc.). There are also weird transitions and time-lapses in the film that felt slightly forced, and even cuts from scene-to-scene had an amateurish quality to it. Regardless of whose fault it really is, the inability to make the story flow in a natural and organic way was not only a detriment, but it nearly crippled the entire narrative.
Having said all that, there are a lot of things to like about Transcendence. For one thing, the acting across the board was quite well done (during serious moments), and even when it wasn't I have to think they just needed an extra take to really nail it. Johnny Depp returns to form in this film, finally letting go of his over-the-top quirkiness and delivering a subdued and more layered character. Also, the ideas are still so interesting that even their sometimes sloppy portrayal on screen couldn't ruin the fascinating implications of the concept. Not only that, but the emotion in the movie is genuinely heartfelt, with the performances of Depp and Rebecca Hall really selling the relationship of the two leads. I have to think that a lot of that is helped by the music by Mychael Danna (Moneyball, Life of Pi, etc.), which is so good I will probably end up downloading it regardless of my thoughts on the rest of the movie.
While I didn't really like Transcendence all that much, I also didn't hate it. There's still plenty of good stuff in here to enjoy depending on your tolerance for speculative sci-fi. It's just hard seeing a movie with so much potential go totally off the rails, which makes it even more disappointing than just a mediocre failure. Had the executives put someone else been in the director's chair and placed Pfister back behind the camera, this could have been a terrific movie. As it is, it's one of the bigger let-downs I've experienced in quite some time. Though I think it's only a slight improvement over the recent Divergent, I still give Transcendence two and a half stars.
TRANSCENDENCE is rated PG-13 for sci-fi action and violence, some bloody images, brief strong language and sensuality
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