A film review by Craig J. Koban April 23, 2014 


2014, PG-13, 119 mins.


Johnny Depp as Will  /  Paul Bettany as Max  /  Rebecca Hall as Evelyn  /  Kate Mara as Bree  /  Cole Hauser as Colonel Stevens  /  Morgan Freeman as Joseph  /  Cillian Murphy as Anderson  /  Clifton Collins Jr. as Martin  /  Falk Hentschel as Bob  /  Kristen Rakes as MIT Programmer

Directed by Wally Pfister  /  Written by Jack Paglen

TRANSCENDENCE is one of those rare breeds of modern science fiction films that’s more idea and thematically driven than it is by bombastic action and perfunctory special effects.  It marks the directorial debut of Wally Pfister, the superlative cinematographer that previously worked on the majority of Christopher Nolan’s catalogue of films, and as far as debut features go TRANSCENDENCE is certainly a bold and ambitious work that will certainly spur debate and conjecture.  The film explores its main themes – mankind’s interaction and assimilation with artificially intelligent computers – with a real sense of keen interest.  Regrettably, though, Pfister and company never fully capitalize on their unique and enthralling premise to its fullest.  By the end of it all, you are left with a film that feels like it’s a re-write or two away from achieving greatness. 

It’s a bit of a pity, because TRANSCENDENCE contains some thanklessly great performances and virtuoso direction by Pfister, who clearly is incapable of making a disinteresting looking film.  It’s just that the underlining screenplay sometimes betrays these stellar elements and holds back the film from becoming a sci-fi work of truly memorable and evocative proportions.  The film concerns the brilliant, but somewhat socially reclusive computer scientist Dr. Will Castor, whom is very close to making a tangible breakthrough in the arena of developing the world’s first self-aware artificial intelligence.  He actually has a vast prototype in place, which he affectionately calls PINN (Physically Independent Neural Network) that’s kind of a more archaic, distant cousin to the HALL 9000.  Even though this supercomputer seems capable of carrying on conversations with Will and his colleagues, the scientist still feels that PINN is just a tip of the technological iceberg. 



What Will really wants to create is a computer that has both sentience and collective intelligence, which would mark the coming of an event that he calls “transcendence.”  Alas, not everyone shares his radical views, which makes him a targeted threat by an extreme group of terrorists that believe that the rise of artificial intelligence will lead to the downfall of society.  This fringe group strikes out at Will during the aftermath of one of his lectures, critically injuring and poisoning him in the process.  With Will given only five weeks to live, his wife Evelyn (the always fine and assured Rebecca Hall) and one of his closest colleagues, Max Waters (Paul Bettany) decide to take a very risky gamble to “save” Will: They will upload his consciousness into a hyper-advanced computer system, thereby allowing Will to live on indefinitely while his human form dies. 

Astoundingly to all involved, the entire dangerous process of uploading Will to the computer is a success, but the transcendence that has occurred here leaves Will’s wife and friend wondering if the real Will actually resides in the computer.  Is the transcended Will just an artificial being with the man’s memories, or is he actually Will with all of his cognitive skills, personality quirks, and feelings?  Even though Max has his doubts, the recently grieving Evelyn seems convinced that the artificial Will...is Will.  So, when the new Will begins to make unusual requests out of her – like hooking up him up to the Internet, which possibly could give him unlimited and unstoppable powers – Evelyn acquiesces while Max smells something decidedly fishy.  He seeks out the advice and assistance from fellow scientist Joseph Tagger (Morgan Freeman) and FBI agent Buchanan (Cillian Murphy), but as Will is connected to the Web – and becomes eerily more controlling by the minute - it soon becomes clear that his end game could spell doom for all mortal life on the planet. 

Nothing that TRANSCENDENCE deals with is hardly anything new (notions of man versus machine has prevailed in the science fiction genre from day one), but the film is thoroughly fascinating with its big core ideas and for how it deals with the notions of human life fusing with artificial life.  Obviously, as Will’s artificial self and his abilities grow and mature at an exponential rate it becomes readily apparent that he has become a technological God that will stop at nothing to see his vision of a new world comprised of human/machine hybrids.  The film further explores the universal ideas of free will and the soul and how the line between the corporal Will and the transcended Will have became nightmarishly hazy.  It’s one thing to speculate about a fully self-aware computer and what it could do, but what if it had the unchecked ego and drives of a human soul lurking within?  On these levels, TRANSCENDENCE is quite thought provoking and rarely dull. 

I guess that for as enthralling as the film is on paper, TRANSCENDENCE never fully finds a manner of tapping fully into the inherent tragic elements of Will sacrificing his body and soul into becoming a new kind of artificially sentient monster.  It’s not that the performances are not on par with the inherent material (Depp is kind of refreshingly reserved and internalized as the transcended Will, which only helps to make him more cunningly sinister as an antagonist).  No, the real issue with TRANSCENDENCE is that it propels itself towards a third climatic act after a truly solid build-up and ends the film on a relative whimper instead of a bang.  There’s also many details and, frankly, questions that the film poses and never really satisfactorily answers.  Like, for example, if Will has becoming a nearly omnipotent threat to all of humanity, then why isn’t there a collective agenda by the world’s leaders to shut him down?  The climax revolves around an incredulously small contingent of characters attacking Will head-on, which seems foolhardy and implausible.  Then there’s the anti-technology terrorist cell that preaches human purity, but then willfully murders people and, oddly enough, uses technology to plot their crimes.  Then, when the script deems it necessary, the group is conveniently at the disposal of the heroes when they wish to launch an offensive against Will.  Hmmm…. 

Still, there’s ample to like and appreciate in TRANSCENDENCE.  Rebecca Hall manages to create a believably grounded, in-over-her-head persona that lends much emotional veracity to the film’s out-there material.  Her and Depp also have nice, low-key chemistry, even when she’s forced to occupy scenes with his pixelized visage on computer screens ominously overlooking her.   Pfister also shows a great facility for directing actors and, predictably, for crafting a solid and immersive visual style for the film (he shot TRANSCENDENCE on film stock during our largely digital era, a bold aesthetic move for sure) and, as a result, it becomes a mesmerizing and hauntingly beautiful film to sit back and look at throughout.  Nonetheless, TRANSCENDENCE feels like it only scratches the surface of its truly captivating premise, and certainly feels a bit shallower than recent films that explored the same ideas (see last year’s HER).  Pfister has the goods of a natural filmmaker and seems driven by richly gripping material, but it’s now time for him to make something that doesn’t feel like a somewhat watered down work-in-progress.

  H O M E