Well, I am a little heartbroken tonight.
I wonder though, am I really heartbroken? Or am I guilty of swallowing the hype and blindly rushing into a film that looks cool and features a star-studded cast? The answer is of course I am. I am a human being, it happens to the best of us. I thought the trailers for "Transcendence" looked promising. I was intrigued by the film being a directoral debut for Wally Pfister. He worked so closely with Christopher Nolan on his Batman movies, perhaps Nolan taught Pfister a thing or two. (Nolan himself served as an executive producer for this film.) It has a cast that features Johnny Depp, Rebecca Hall, Paul Bettany, Kate Mara, Morgan Freeman, Cillian Murphy, Cole Hauser and Clifton Collins Jr. "Transcendence" had all the right ingredients that would make it something to discuss, something to truly love.
So I am shocked to report that "Transcendence" is just a well polished version of "The Lawnmower Man" with a bigger budget and better actors.
Depp plays Dr. Will Caster who is an artificial intelligence researcher and on the brink of changing the world with his team of scientists. He plans to use his particular AI to create a much better world through technology. Caster is soon gunned down by an anti-technology terrorist group. On the brink of death, Caster's wife and colleague Evelyn (Hall) and his friend Max (Bettany) attempt to upload Caster's mind into a computer so that he can live on and finish his work. Everything seems golden as Evelyn is able to interact with Caster, but Max is always begging the question of whether or not it really is Caster, or something else.
Look, technically speaking, "Transcendence" is a feast. If you absolutely must see this film, try and find the best possible screen you can. The visuals in this movie are arresting and daring. The sound, editing and cinematography are all of the highest order. There are several moments in "Transcendence" that feature astonishing beauty and detail. As I sat in the theater, taking in all of the pretty scenery, a particular thought instantly popped into my head. For a movie that is so anti-technology, its really ironic that the film crew put so much time and attention into the visual effects.
The script by Paglen was put on a special script list in 2012, as it was praised for being a popular script that had not been used yet. I wonder if the final script deviated a lot from that 2012 script, because what Paglen wrote here is a carwreck. Every single cliche you can think of is on nice display. Does the AI Caster begin to develop a God complex? Oh yes. Will Caster's old colleagues eventually turn to the terrorist group who killed him for help in defeating him? You, bet. Will Caster's wife be in denial until the very last minute? Oh, you bet your boots she will. While "Transcendence" is filled with interesting ideas that could have made an equally interesting movie, Paglen goes for the easy cliche each time. The whole script leads right to a final showdown that, while being visually stunning, is one of the most preposterously goofy showdowns I have seen in awhile. Its sad that given how widespread the science fiction genre is, and given the possibilities raised in "Transcendence" that Paglen wrote something so ordinary.
Johnny Depp is a huge blank in this movie, and that's really too bad. He's capable of undeniable wit, charm and even intelligence in his roles, but here he looks like he was in a mediocre movie and just let it happen. Rebecca Hall and Paul Bettany really try to give this movie a pulse, and they help quite a bit, but the script really pulls them down. Morgan Freeman and Cillian Murphy are good, but they only have a few scenes in the movie and they don't really do anything that impacts the story. Kate Mara is pretty good here, but she seems to channel her character from Netflix's "House of Cards" and nothing more.
I always hate being letdown, especially given the potential of this premise and the talent involved. But "Transcendence" is just a big bag of bland. Not only that, but its a film that clearly hates technology and clearly hates the possibilities technology could layout for us in the future. Its a film full of possibility and it could have been something that could either confirm or challenge our beliefs on technology, but all it strives for is the familiar. While the film is wonderful to look at, "Transcendence" is all surface with nothing substantial to offer the audience.
FINAL GRADE: C