PLOT: When Dr. Will Caster (Johnny Depp) is fatally wounded in an assassination attempt, his wife (Rebecca Hall) and research partner (Paul Bettany) decide to upload his consciousness into a super computer. Thus, Will is reborn as a sentient machine with near limitless power. But is it still Will, or has his humanity been lost forever?
REVIEW: Considering former DP turned director Wally Pfister’s long association with Christopher Nolan – credited here as an executive producer – one couldn’t help but have high hopes for TRANSCENDENCE. The trailers were intriguing, if a little familiar, with this seeming like a mega-budget, 21st century take on THE LAWNMOWER MAN. Incredibly, TRANSCENDENCE actually pales in comparison to that admittedly goofy film, and emerges one of the year’s first major disappointments, and a puzzling failure considering the talent involved.
There are so many problems with TRANSCENDENCE that one hardly knows where to begin. For one thing, TRANSCENDENCE hinges on the relationship between Will and his wife Evelyn, played by Rebecca Hall. They’re supposed to be a tragic couple whose plight should move us. It never does, as there’s no chemistry at all between Hall and Depp, with both of them giving oddly off-kilter performances. Depp – as seems to be his custom these days – really phones it in here, with 90% of his screen time seeing him as a talking head on a monitor. Imagine a high-tech Max Headroom, but less cool. One could argue that Depp’s robotic performance is appropriate given the part, but even in Will’s human scenes pre-upload, Depp seems listless. As for Hall, she’s been excellent in the past, but her character is so poorly written that she’s all but impossible to sympathize with. From the beginning, she seems almost insane in her desire to turn her dying lover into some kind of super-computer, and it takes a ludicrously long time for her to realize that his new power is sapping his humanity. The fact that their relationship is impossible to ever engage with emotionally would be enough to make TRANSCENDENCE a failure, but it gets worse.
Once Will’s consciousness is uploaded to the internet, he’s able to transform Evelyn into one of the world’s richest women by manipulating the stock market, allowing the two to buy a small town in New Mexico where they build a super compound with technology that allows them to cure any physical impediment with nanotechnology. None of this is ever questioned by the authorites mind you. The only catch is that when someone is fixed by Will, they virtually become his slaves, with him able to control them all via the fact that they’re networked. This should be presented as some kind of ethical dilemma, but it’s barely addressed. The worst problem is that the world apparently knows about Will’s work, with him constantly uploading information to the internet and clips to YouTube. Yet, when it comes time to deal with Will and his army, it comes down to Cillian Murphy as a lone FBI agent, Morgan Freeman as Will’s former mentor, and a handful of mercenaries. If a major super-computer was on the verge of taking over the world, wouldn’t it call for a bit of a heavier response? The film has no international scope whatsoever, and the world’s reaction to a super computer essentially taking over mankind is never addressed. Considering that the script by Jack Paglen was on the Black List and so widely acclaimed, this seems like a major plot hole.
Even worse is Paul Bettany’s part in the proceedings. For the first half, Bettany felt like the only fully realized character, with him being the only one with qualms about uploading Will into a computer. Early on, he’s kidnapped by a “neo-luddite” terrorist group run by a crazy-eyed Kate Mara. This is the same group that’s responsible for giving his friend an agonizing demise and killing dozens of innocent people early on, yet it barely takes any time for him to be won over to their side. If the group was at least well-organized or had a decent argument against technology that would be one thing, but the film presents them as four insane hackers who do nothing but kill innocent people. And we’re supposed to sympathize with them! Heck, toward the end we’re even supposed to root for them!
If all that weren’t bad enough, there’s a final twist that takes what had merely been a bad film up to that point, and elevates it to a level that approaches high camp. It’s so bad that even the more patient viewers that have somehow forgiven the terrible plotting and awkward performances will turn against it. Suffice to say TRANSCENDENCE is an all-out disaster, and a really terrible way for Pfister to start his directorial career. In the end, it really comes down to an intriguing idea that’s been really poorly executed. The only positive thing that could be said about it is that it looks nice, with it having been photographed in 35mm, resulting in a really lush image if you get to see it in IMAX. TRANSCENDENCE is almost worth seeing just to see how horribly awry it goes, but in the end it can’t even be recommended on a “so bad it’s good” level. Considering the talent and resources the studio poured into this, it’s just a depressing film to slog through and deadly dull. Avoid it.