Transcendence (2014) – Review

Directed by Wally Pfister
Written by Jack Paglen
Starring Johnny Depp, Paul Bettany, Rebecca Hall, Morgan Freeman

Well, it was high time for a bit of mind-bending science fiction that taxes the brains and raises philosophical conundrums about the nature of existence, wasn’t it. Whilst not passionate enough to go and see this in the cinema upon its release (largely due to the negative responses from my peers, if I’m honest) I have waited until now to see this first directorial attempt by Nolan’s cinematographer Wally Pfister. Even before the backlash from the naysayers, I was at least hoping for great things, but honestly expecting it to look pretty but maybe lack the substance to match the expectedly sumptuous imagery.
And in conclusion, this is pretty much what we got. The cinematography suffered to a degree as a consequence of Pfister having his mind on other things and the direction is not what we have come to expect either from what we can probably still claim is Nolan-esque in intent and inspiration if not in actuality.
Potentially, what we have here is the opportunity to delve into some very intriguing philosophical pondering, yet this appears to have been overlooked by a near-death love story intermingled with an advert for the benefits of near-future nanotechnology.
Eminent and notorious tech guru Doctor Will Caster (Depp) and his equally brilliant wife Evelyn (Hall) announce that they are very close to creating the ‘singularity’, the holy grail for science whereupon artifical intelligence becomes sentient or ‘self-aware’. As such, they become the target of ‘The Rift’, a ‘terrorist’ organisation intent on stopping the progression and culmination of this research by any means necessary, believing it is the beginning of the end for humanity.
At once, we have a niggly problem. As a science-fiction geek, you might find yourself gunning for Dr Caster, the man that will spawn what some clearly see as the biggest threat to human survival. Chances are you will feel this way simply because you would like to see nothing more than one man’s vision about what would happen if…, so a protaganist that can deliver this is always going to be an attractive character for you. However, there is also the heavy-laden message of potential doom presented in the form of the terrorists that, for the eager science (fiction) geek, are on nothing more than a moralistic crusade, throttling the possibiilty of advancement, and subsequently, their escapist fun.
When Dr Caster is shot with a radiation-laced bullet by one of these terrorists, we understand that he only four weeks to live, so begins in earnest that process of uploading his consciousness, humanity and soul into PINN, the computer they have been developing artificial intelligence on. Would it work? And if it did, would the end result actually be the man himself in digital form, or something quite different and altogether more unpredictable?
Pfister’s intent certainly seems to be one of caution and the over-riding message of ‘be careful what you wish for’  is a pertinent one with an ecological tinge, albeit never delivered quite as elegantly as we might like.The performances are likeable enough (Bettany is best, followed closely by Hall) but this is another example of how Depp struggles to deal with any character that couldn’t be registered as mentally challenged. He doesn’t do ‘normal’ very well, even if that normal person is actually interesting. He hasa habit of taking that very same ‘interesting’ out of these characters and turns them into mumbling geniuses that really don’t do justice to his enviable talents.

In all, an opportunity missed. Pfister’s first job here as director is not as awful as some may have you believe. In fact, the direction is not bad at all. It is not inspired, certainly, and the cinematography he is so well known for is noticeably lacking in depth here also (he didn’t do it, I know). Add to this the daft story that could have been interesting if they had only given the topic the respect it deserves. To give Transcendence the greatest compliment I can, I was reminded how much I liked Hollow Man. It’s good that this reminded me of it, but not so good that I was bored enough to let my mind wander so far away from current events.

Go for it, if you want, but don’t expect greatness, for this is nothing more than average fayre.

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