Director Wally Pfister’s new sci-fi thriller Transcendence plays with a lot of smart ideas. Living in an age of constantly advancing technology, each and every one of us has taken a moment to think about where the future is heading, and we’ve been both excited and horrified by the prospects. Pfister’s movie dives headfirst into that idea with an exploration of artificial intelligence and the theory of the technological singularity. It questions the morality of these kinds of advancements, and takes a long look at both the benefits and the negative consequences. It’s a film that should inspire interesting conversations and deep thought in its audience.
For all of its big ideas, however, Transcendence ends up lacking when it comes to translating them into a compelling story. All of the pieces are in place – from a talented visual filmmaker at the helm to an all-star cast of very talented people – but issues in the script by Jack Paglen do their part to remove a few gigabytes from the movie’s hard drive.
Set in the not-too-distant future, the film centers on Dr. Will Caster (Johnny Depp), one of the world’s most respected researchers in the field of artificial intelligence. Working alongside his wife, Evelyn (Rebecca Hall), and partner, Max (Paul Bettany), Will is close to discovering how to program a computer with sentience, but is struck down when an assassin from the luddite terrorist organization known as RIFT shoots him in the chest with a radioactive bullet. Given only a few weeks to live, it seems that he will be unable to complete the work to which he has dedicated his life.
Unable to let her husband go, Evelyn decides that she will not only complete Will’s work, but that she will use her love’s very alive mind to become the first consciousness to be uploaded into a computer. The experiment is deemed a success and before long Will’s mind inside of the machine is able to make incredible advancements in the span of just a few months. With the arrival of this new technological revolution, though, comes a great deal of fear, as Evelyn, Max, fellow researcher Joseph Tagger (Morgan Freeman), RIFT (represented largely by Kate Mara), and the FBI (represented by Cillian Murphy) are left wondering if Will’s exponential growth is a good thing for the world or an obstacle that will ultimately lead to the downfall of humanity.
Despite its sizable budget and talented cast, Transcendence is surprisingly small in terms of scale. Once Will is uploaded into the computer and the movie settles into its plot, the script falls into the pattern of just going back and forth between three separate pairings of characters (Depp & Hall, Bettany & Mara, Freeman & Murphy) and really only three locations – the Casters’ advanced lab in the fictional desert town of Brightwood, the RIFT headquarters, and the FBI offices. This unfortunately lulls the story into a rather monotonous pattern, which really hurts the pacing of the film.
Plot and structure problems also create character issues, but a few solid performances from the cast do their part to elevate Pfister’s components. Appearing for most of his screen time as an image on a monitor, Depp is given a challenge playing Dr. Caster, but the star makes it work with an interesting mix of menacing and enigmatic stoicism. Hall adds a lot of great layers to Evelyn, even though she is given the handicap of playing the protagonist with easily the most interesting emotional conflict in the movie. The actress works hard to make Evelyn the most identifiable character in the ensemble. Bettany, Mara, Freeman and Murphy put in their best efforts as well, but are inevitably weighed down by roles that lack real personality and depth.
While the script has severe faults, the movie is served well having a master cinematographer behind the camera working as a first-time director. Pfister manages to successfully transfers his keen visual eye to Transcendence, working with his own Director of Photography, Jess Hall, to make the film fantastic to look at. The filmmakers have a keen eye for the smallest of details, which comes in handy when making a movie that involves nanotechnology on an important level. With proper credit due to the visual effects artists, there is a great marriage of CGI and practical landscapes, sucking the audience into a believable sci-fi world that is just a few steps beyond our own.
Given that we are about to enter the movie season best known for its mindlessness, I want to give Transcendence a lot of credit for actually being interesting and thoughtful in its concepts, but there are un-ignorable flaws in the execution. Pfister shows definite promise as a director, but hopefully next time out he will get a better-constructed script.