Transcendence is cinematographer Wally Pfister‘s first foray into directing as well as Johnny Depp’s first film role in quite some time where he isn’t caked in make-up and faking an accent. This big-budget, sci-fi romance tries to answer a question that humans have always had: can human beings and technology fully merge as one? And if so, what are the limitations or possibilities that can occur?
Before we delve any further into the review, for those who do not know, Transcendence is about a doctor named Will Caster (played by Johnny Depp) who is gravely injured by a radical anti-technology group because of his work in artificial intelligence. Before he dies, his wife Evelyn (played by Rebecca Hall) and best friend Max (played by Paul Bettany) attempt to send Dr. Caster’s brain into the super-computer that Caster has been working on for some time. When Caster dies and his brain is “transcended” into the super-computer, he begins to advance modern-healthcare and create a better world. Will’s need for knowledge is questioned by the US government and even his own wife, causing a rift between them that could lead to the end of more than just their marriage.
The film wastes no time getting into the story. Roughly ten minutes or so into the film, Will is shot by the anti-technology extremists and told that he is living on borrowed time. It is then that the true focus of the movie shows itself. On the surface it may seem as though Will’s dangerously ever-expanding power is the sole conflict of the film, but in fact, the relationship between Will and Evelyn is the main conflict. This is where the film excels. Depp gives an overall strong performance, but an unusual one at that. At certain points Will seemed much more human when he was a computer and he seemed like a computer while he was an actual human being. Rebecca Hall’s terrific performance also helps give reality to their romance. Evelyn’s unconditional love for this machine that appears to be her husband sells her emotional connection to him. The sole reason for Will’s mind being transcended into the computer was because of her love for him and her unwillingness to let him go. Even when Will is transcended into the computer they live together and reminisce on old times and the first time they met. That scene in particular showed the connection that the two of them have.
While the film attempts to answer some large questions, it makes even larger mistakes in its plot. For example (spoiler alerts ahead),Will, due to his incredible technological abilities, advances modern medicine and advances technology by decades in only a few years. This gets the attention of the FBI, particularly Agents Buchanan (played by Cillian Murphy) and Tagger (played by Morgan Freeman). Agents Buchanan and Tagger team up with the same anti-technology group from before (Buchanan claims they need someone to blame if the whole operation goes south) and make the decision to attack Caster’s “base of operations” with only a handful of soldiers. In reality, Caster’s mere existence as a humanoid super-computer thingy would garner massive global news and attention. It is clear to everybody from the very beginning that Caster has extremely dangerous potential seeing as how he gives the FBI all of the information they need to find the anti-technology group in seconds and gives Evelyn millions of dollars in her bank account. His omnipotence would make every single country want to attack or protect themselves from Caster, and we’re supposed to believe that two agents made the decision to attack Caster’s base with, like, ten soldiers? I think that maybe the U.S. military (or a million other global militaries) would have stepped in, or there would have been several attacks on Caster’s base before that. At the very least a U.N. meeting would have been held. This and a few other minor plot holes left me scratching my head at the end of the film.
All around, the performances given by all actors were solid, seeing as how the main cast are, for the most part, A-listers. Visually the film is quite strong. This is no surprise, seeing as how Pfister had previously worked on the cinematography for the The Dark Knight trilogy and Inception. Musically the film is also very nice. Composer Mychael Danna gives the film a synth-heavy, techno sound mixed with the traditional strings and hard hitting percussion of a normal big-budget film that compliment the film’s subject matter.
The Bottom Line: Alas, beautiful visuals and a strong score do not make a great movie. What will ultimately make a movie great is acting and a solid story. Transcendence has only the former, not the latter. While it tries its hardest to answer some very intriguing questions, Transcendence falls short with its huge plot holes. However, the main romantic conflict of the film is where the film manages to shine and stay relatively steady. I commend Pfister’s ambitious directorial debut and Hall’s terrific acting skills, but I would recommend waiting until this film is available on DVD.