Johnny Depp, Rebecca Hall, Paul Bettany, Morgan Freeman, Cillian Murphy, Clifton Collins Jr.
Alex Paraskevas, Jack Paglen, Jordan Goldberg, and Wally Pfister
It's hard not to watch director Wally Pfister's Transcendence without wondering how Christopher Nolan, for whom Pfister has served as cinematographer on multiple films, would have approached such a complex and ambitious film.
My gut feeling tells me that, first and foremost, Nolan would have realized that in its present form Transcendence wasn't quite ready for the big screen. That's not to imply that the finished product is a truly bad film - it's not. It's also not a good film. Transcendence is an ambitious and thought-provoking film that takes a familiar theme, man vs. machine or humanity vs. technology, and turns it into a series of cyber-babble cliche's and unconvincing ethical issues. In the film, Depp plays Dr. Will Caster, a rock star in the world of artificial intelligence on the verge of manifesting a lifelong dream known as PINN (Physically Independent Neural Network), essentially a computer system containing all the intelligence of the world along with feelings and emotion. Not surprisingly, Caster's work attracts the negative attention of RIFT, an anti-technology group that attempts to sabotage the effort by shooting Caster after one of his acclaimed presentations. While he's seemingly only wounded in the attack, it is quickly realized that the bullet with which he was shot contained a toxin and Caster has only a short time to live.
What to do? What to do?
His equally brilliant wife Evelyn, played by Rebecca Hall, stares the ethical dilemma head-on then completely ignores the advice of her more level-headed peers, played by Morgan Freeman and Paul Bettany, and decides to upload her husband's consciousness to PINN in hopes that it will allow his vision to continue.
Does anybody else sense that this is a really bad idea?
Far less convincing and far less entertaining than Spike Jonze's Her while also basically tasked with that same discussion about the good and bad potential for technology, Transcendence seems almost constantly on the edge of becoming something special but never actually comes close to getting there. Of course, it doesn't help that Depp himself is pretty much reduced to a facial presence and vocal work once his consciousness disappears inside PINN and, let me reassure you, Depp is sure no Scarlett Johansson.
The film's most compelling element is, in fact, the relationship between the two Casters, a relationship that for obvious reasons becomes more complex as Will Caster leaves the physical realm and becomes what we shall call a universal presence. Depp, to his massive credit, seems completely incapable of ever phoning in a performance and elevates material that even as mediocre as it is now would have been much worse in lesser hands. While the film overall never quite gels, this may very well be the ideal transitional role for a Depp who has seemingly been trapped in the land of quirky characters for far too long. Hall, one of Hollywood's more under-appreciated actresses, is saddled with dialogue that is frequently ludicrous yet adds an emotional heft that keeps us watching even when there's nothing particularly compelling going on.
It's no surprise that Transcendence is an absolutely beautiful film to behold, with Pfister's visual eye showing up in the ways in which shots are framed and even how conflicts unfold. It's just incredibly unfortunate that Transcendence never really rises to the level of its imagery and what should have been an intriguing and compelling sci-fi thriller is reduced to a series of Cliff's Notes that leave little more than a muted impact intellectually and emotionally.
© Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic