In a shocking and dispiriting turn of events, Wally Pfister, the talented cinematographer of Inception, The Dark Knight and practically every other Christopher Nolan film, chose Transcendence, surely one of the most jaw-droppingly brainless sci-fi movies in years, as his first directing gig. And Pfister will hopefully get out just about unscathed from this agonizing trainwreck, because his consistently stylish and visually pleasing direction is the only reason Transcendence should get any stars.
But I still must ask, what was he thinking? How is it possible that an Academy Award winner who worked on one of the best and most thoughtful sci-fi films of the last decade could have looked at the story of Transcendence and thought, “Yup, sounds good”? I can’t think of a wannabe blockbuster in recent memory that has ever been as gruesomely mauled to death by its script as Transcendence – after learning that screenwriter Jack Paglen’s work ended up on the Black List, I’m seriously mulling over how much attention any of us should pay to that annual survey of “most liked” scripts. From its rocky opening all the way through to the mind-boggling leaps in logic in its final third, this is one thoroughly awful script, made all the more disappointing by the fact that Paglen’s basic idea actually held some promise.
Centering on scientist Will Caster (Johnny Depp) and his wife Evelyn (Rebecca Hall), Transcendence explores – or should I say attempts to explore – the technological singularity, a hypothetical point in time when artifical intelligence will have progressed to the point of superintelligence, possessing the collective mental capacity of all mankind.
Will is working in the field of AI, researching possible ways to reach the singularity – an event which he calls transcendence. As you can imagine, the idea of an omnscient computer doesn’t sit right with a group of anti-technology extremists known as R.I.F.T., led by a eyeliner-addicted hacker with a shock of blonde hair named Bree (Kate Mara), and R.I.F.T. goes on the offensive. Soon, they’ve injured Will with a radiation-laced bullet sure to kill him within weeks.
Instead of taking the time to grieve, both Will and Evelyn spend the time before he kicks the bucket formulating a plan to keep his consciousness alive after death. Eventually, the idea to upload Will’s consciousness into a quantum computer emerges, and when the procedure is completed, both Evelyn and Will’s close friend/fellow researcher Max (Paul Bettany) are stunned to see that it appears to have worked. Max, however, quickly questions whether what’s communicating with them through the computer is in fact Will or just power-hungry AI. Evelyn won’t hear of it, and soon she’s allowing Will to adapt and evolve, building a technological empire – though what he has planned for humankind isn’t a detail he clues her in on.
There are some big ideas involved in Transcendence. Can the mind survive after death? Is the singularity possible, or is the presence of a soul something that will never be rendered in code? What would a post-transcendence world look like? And most pressingly, given Transcendence‘s sheer awfulness, will Depp ever pick a good movie role again? Paglen’s script isn’t capable of expressing any of the ideas he swirls together into the film’s set-up, and every aspect of the movie is depressingly muddled, from the B-movie-masquerading-as-more plot to the characters to even basic scene construction.
The cast doesn’t help with that either. Depp may have actually Skyped in his performance, given that he spends so much of it pulling a Mr. Roboto on various computer screens. The characteristically far-out actor is a bizarre choice for the role when one considers the scarce amount of emotion Will betrays at any given time, and I wonder what in Transcendence made the film an appealing prospect for him. Hall, playing the quivering, dewey-eyed love interest (whom we’re meant to buy as a respected researcher despite her wall-to-wall vacuousness), doesn’t leave much of an impact, but that’s more a fault of the script than Hall’s.
Meanwhile, Bettany and Mara, both typically strong actors, appear only fleetingly conscious. Oh, and Morgan Freeman is in this too, providing the requisite warnings and ominous words of wisdom so often associated with his performances, but even he never feels fully present. There’s not a single engaged performance in the bunch – either the actors all figured out what a turkey they’d signed on for and decided to bring their acting down to its level, or there were some serious sleep deprivation problems on set. Either way, their collective disinterest, heightened by Paglen’s wooden dialogue, has a soporific effect.
By the time Transcendence‘s grand finale arrives, with military men blitzing a compound Will has established from which to spread his influence, the film has given up any illusions of intelligence. But it presses on, delivering an eye-roller of a climax and an equally painful denouement that just drives home how much of a narrative disaster Transcendence truly is.
Maybe if it had settled on being Big Dumb Fun or cut its budget in half to tell a more character-focused, visually conservative tale of technology’s promise and perils, the movie would have been more watchable. Sadly, in trying to have it both ways, Transcendence sacrifices both believable characters and basic logic, not to mention entertainment value. Here’s hoping Pfister reads his next script a little more carefully.
Though the film itself is one of the year’s worst, Warner Bros.’ 1080p Blu-Ray transfer is mostly acceptable, though I did notice a few instances where the video appears to have been overly sharpened and polished, creating an oddly artificial effect in some scenes. The actors’ faces are often robbed of some emotion by this – and seeing as none of them brought much to the set to begin with, that’s a problem. Pfister does deliver some really striking scenes in Transcendence, including some involving nano-bots drifting in clouds through the air like rotating DNA double helixes, and the video transfer preserves those scenes’ intrigue and visual appeal. It’s just a shame I can’t heartily recommend the Blu-Ray transfer based on instances of strange skin tones and other visual inconsistencies.
On the other hand, WB’s 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio Track is a winner, with crisp dialogue throughout and a great balance between that dialogue, background sound effects and Mychael Danna’s thrilling score. Even when the scenes grow explosion-happy in the third act, the clarity of the audio track never falters.
In terms of special features, Transcendence offers a disappointing array of extras including:
- What is Transcendence? (5:20)
- Wally Pfister: A Singular Vision (2:52)
- Guarding the Threat (2:18)
- The Promise of A.I. (2:34)
- It’s Me (1:02)
- Singularity (1:08)
- R.I.F.T. (0:57)
Out of all of these, only “What is Transcendence?” has decent length, and even that talking-heads featurette about the messages of the film feels rushed. A common problem throughout all these featurettes is that they include a lot of footage from the movie and not enough insight. “Wally Pfister: A Singular Vision” is shorter than the first featurette, focusing briefly on the cast’s acclaim for Pfister “keeping it light” and “fun” on set. I honestly don’t know what the point of “Guarding the Threat” is. The amount of film footage screened is a solid half of the featurette, and the only insights are tiny and again focused on the plot. Skip it.
“The Promise of A.I.” finds the cast discussing the future of AI and the ideas of transcendence. There are a few experts who stop in for a sound bite or two, but short length is again a hinderance. From there, it just gets worse. Johnny Depp, Morgan Freeman and Kate Mara narrate “It’s Me,” “Singularity” and “R.I.F.T.,” respectively, but they’re all just banal teasers for the movie. Then there are some actual trailers.
With the flawed Blu-Ray transfer, awful story and paltry extras, despite the excellence of the audio track, I can’t recommend picking up Transcendence. If there’s ever a book written called “When Bad Movies Happen to Good Actors,” I’d expect there to be an entire chapter devoted to this mess. Though Pfister’s direction is eye-catching, the stupidity of the script is just far too great for me to look past, and for that I’m sorry. Transformers: Age of Extinction isn’t winning any screenwriting Oscars, but at least it’s honest about being Big Dumb Fun. For all its faux-intellectual pretensions, Transcendence is to sci-fi what Derek Zoolander is to male models – a stunningly empty-headed outing, albeit a really, really, ridiculously good-looking one.
The Blu-Ray for Transcendence elicits a shrug, while the film is a disaster on almost every level, with only Pfister's visually pleasing direction managing to survive the drama-draining, doltish script.