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Transcendence (Movie Review)

Transcendence (Movie Review)
04.18.2014by: Eric Walkuski
3 10

PLOT: After being shot by extremists, a radical scientist's brain is uploaded into a computer in order to save his memories and consciousness - which could result in making him the most intelligent - and dangerous - machine known to mankind.

REVIEW: It's hard to gauge who is more bored during TRANSCENDENCE, Johnny Depp or the audience. Surely the audience goes into the film with expectations - this is a high-concept sci-fi film, produced by Christopher Nolan, with a philosophical approach to the notion our technology might swallow us whole one day - but Depp appears bored from the get-go. The actor, who once upon a time was legitimately the coolest and most unique of his generation, is now a mumbling, unexciting shell of his former self, and though his presence in TRANSCENDENCE is 75% voice-over work, he can't even muster enough energy to make us even slightly interested in his presence.

But it's not all Depp's fault; perhaps he was simply disheartened by the project he had signed up for. TRANSCENDENCE is as lifeless and ponderous as a movie about a man whose brain is uploaded into a computer can be. It's a shocking turn of events, considering the script was highly regarded a few years back and caught the attention of Nolan and his director of photography Wally Pfister, who makes his directorial debut here. The two have worked together on seven movies, and you'd think some of Nolan's knack for brainy genre pieces would have rubbed off on Pfister at least a little, but no dice: this is an absurdly stagnant film, with a plot that unravels the further it goes along and actors who struggle mightily to save face while saddled with predictable dialogue and counterfeit emotions. Ugh, Transcendence.

In theory, the movie gives us a lot to chew on. What if a man's consciousness were uploaded into a super computer, hence injecting the computer with his memories, dreams and ambitions? Would it corrupt the "man," or give him the power to change the world for the better? That question faces the team of Dr. Will Caster (Depp), something of a rock star scientist who sees only the potential in the process of "Transcendence," which brings the human mind into a computer's hard drive, thus creating an entity that could potentially use all of man's intelligence to solve the world's problems. An assassination attempt on Will by anti-technology extremists leaves him sitting on death's door, after which his wife/partner Evelyn (Rebecca Hall) and best friend Max (Paul Bettany) must decide to give him the Transcendence experience, though of course the program is only in its infancy and hasn't been tested on humans.

Naturally, they go through with the experiment, and soon enough Will is eerily talking to his loved ones from behind a monitor. Seemingly a revelation, it soon becomes obvious that Will's mind isn't quite what it used to be, as he begins assembling data from around the world and obsessing over his master plan, which is to not only revitalize the land via nanobots that will soon live within everything, but to infuse broken-down humans with his soul (hence basically creating an army). Aiming to stop him are the FBI (personified by Cillian Murphy), and old colleague (Morgan Freeman) and the eco-terrorists, led by a ruthless blond (Kate Mara).

That's a lot to think about, and the movie strives for big themes and grand ideas. But on the flip side, it's also a relationship movie, as Evelyn learns to care and nurture for her cyber-husband, who on the surface sounds and thinks like Will but could actually be a hungry computer manipulating her into thinking her husband still exists behind the monitor. Evelyn ultimately has to decide how much she loves and trusts Will, who is creepily omnipresent in her life (seriously, what if you literally couldn't escape your spouse because he's in every single computer, camera, phone, etc. in the entire world?). And just wait until Will finds out a way to "touch" his increasingly weirded-out wife.

Unfortunately, Pfister directs with a strangely detached attitude, giving not a bit of this any visual pizazz or dramatic punch, rendering TRANSCENDENCE fun-free zone. The actors are little more than ciphers, there to dish out the script's pretentious, exposition-heavy dialogue. There is much debating about technology-vs-man, but none of it is thought-provoking, predominantly because it's nothing new. ("Star Trek" and "The Outer Limits" covered much of the same material, and better, decades ago.) The elements that are semi-fresh - the zombified people Will uses to do his bidding, the minor miracles he performs on dying vegetation and soil - aren't given much attention, like they're pieces from a different sci-fi story plunked in here to provide padding.

Toward the end, some "action" is shoe-horned into the proceedings, when a platoon of Army rangers is dispatched to help bring down Will's reign. This feels so perfunctory, it's depressing; like Pfister and company figured they had to start blowing stuff up to wake the audience up. They may not have been wrong about that - there's no doubt that by the conclusion I was nearing a deep slumber - but the manner in which it's introduced and carried out is borderline insulting. Will's counterattack is equally lame, and the whole movie ends with a great big thud - a lazy whimper in lieu of fireworks.

Other than the comatose Depp, it's heartening to see most of these actors are troopers, even if their hard work is all for naught. Rebecca Hall, who is really the lead of the film, is all morose concern and intense concentration; Freeman is a pro, but is sadly given little to do; Bettany is sympathetic as the loyal best friend; and Mara exudes righteous indignation as a terrorist who'll do anything to stop technology's limitless growth. And yet, as strong as the cast is, nothing they do in the film connects with us; we don't believe a word they say because if we squint hard enough we can see they're battling their way through a preposterous script with a director who is clearly out of his element.

More than anything, TRANSCENDENCE feels like a waste: A waste of resources, a waste of ideas, a waste of time. To see so many talented people together and make something as dull and pointless as this makes you want to upload a virus into the movie and shut it down forever.

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