Review: Transcendence (2014)

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Director: Wally Pfister
Screenwriter: Jack Paglen
Cast: Johnny Depp, Rebecca Hall, Kate Mara, Morgan Freeman, Cole Hauser, Cillian Murphy & Paul Bettany
Runtime: 119 min // Certificate: 12a

There’s a gaping chasm at the heart of Transcendence where a decent concept ought to be. I always find that if you need to research a film’s plot or meaning immediately after watching it then it usually means one of two things; either the film is so fantastically and intricately complex that you want to see how everyone else’s interpretations compare with your own or it’s so banal and faceless that you want to see if maybe your distaste for it is the result of having missed anything. Unfortunately, in the case of Transcendence which, to paraphrase Father Dougal McGuire, contains one big idea but no little ideas to back it up, it is without doubt the latter that applies.

Set in a World in which Johnny Depp is a genius, Morgan Freeman’s aversion to chocolate cake saves his life and Kate Mara hasn’t yet been hit in the face by a subway train (though her gawping, guppy fish demeanour in this film suggests that such a disaster might still befall her at any given moment), Transcendence asks – or rather attempts to ask – the pertinent question “what happens when evolution goes too far?” The more crucial question, however, is what happens when a bad idea goes too far? What happens when a first-time director and an actor who hasn’t made a decent film in years get a bunch of money thrown at them to turn a flat, one-note concept into a two hour film? Transcendence happens, that’s what, and the results ain’t pretty…

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The film’s plot is at once simple and convoluted, which is perhaps why I wasn’t too sure what was actually going on for most of its runtime. Dr Will Caster (Depp) is a scientist who has spent his life attempting to turn the hypothetical “technological singularity” into a reality. When Caster is shot with a radioactive bullet by a member of the Luddite extremist group known as R.I.F.T (Revolutionary Independence from Technology), he is given just a month to live. In her desperation to save him, Caster’s wife Evelyn (Hall) suggests uploading Will’s consciousness into a supercomputer so that his mind can live on independent from his body. The plan works, but in order to grow Will requires further power. With Evelyn’s assistance he spreads across the entire internet and, in his desire to “help” people, begins to work on a system that will allow everyone on the planet to “transcend”, thus marking the next step in human evolution. At least I think that’s what happens… heck I doubt the film’s writer – Jack Paglen – even knows what’s going on.

Now, I love ridiculous, high-concept science fiction as much as the next film fan but most of the Transcendence’s problems are borne out of its desire to be taken seriously, which is all but impossible when the plot is so patently absurd. After a decent but exposition-heavy opening, in which the film’s philosophical dilemma is all but spelt out for you on the screen, Transcendence descends into a rather tedious, step-by-step deconstruction of all that is wrong with the “singularity”. Were it not for the fact that this idea has been explored to death in far more inventive ways than Jack Paglen could ever even dream of writing then this might have been somewhat interesting. Alas, after the first half-an-hour or so, Transcendence is anything but interesting, it’s just aimless, frustrating and really fucking boring.

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This is a shame because certain elements of the film work rather well. For a first time director, albeit one with a wealth of experience in cinematography, Wally Pfister manages to breathe a small amount of life into a limp and rather sententious story by simple virtue of his grasp of visuals and sounds. Similarly, though he hasn’t done much of any worth for the past decade, Depp gives a decent performance here and is ably supported by Rebecca Hall and Paul Bettany, both of whom try their hardest to make the material seem a bit less stupid than it is. If only the lines they were forced to deliver weren’t so laughable (“we have to unplug the internet” is a particular low point), it might have been a bit more enjoyable. It also doesn’t help that the more the film progresses, the worse the science gets. I know it’s meant to be science-fiction but if you want to be taken seriously then you’ve got to at least flirt with plausibility now and then, which Transcendence just fails to do.

The film’s main problem, ultimately, is that it tries too hard to be something it’s not. If Pfister had been less stony-faced in his approach and taken the script for what it is – a ridiculous, unintelligible but entertaining bit of sci-fi pap – then it might just have worked. Instead, there is a concerted effort from everyone involved to try and make you think that the film has something meaningful to say about the conflict between humanity and technology, which is simply doesn’t. It’s not quite as awful as I was expecting it to be but like so many films of its ilk, it sets itself on a pseudo-philosophical path from the off and then goes absolutely nowhere for the next two hours. If you want to explore the effects of man’s war with artificial intelligence, stick with films like 2001…, Moon or even The Terminator, all of which explore similar ideas with much more passion, fun and understanding than Transcendence ever even attempts.

★★