The techno-cyber-thriller Transcendence is just the latest in a long line of movies in which some new technology is taken to its most evil conclusions, and thus shown how, in the wrong hands, it will kill one, some, or all of us. It’s The Lawnmower Man (virtual reality goes nuts), it’s Gattaca (genetic research goes nuts), and it’s Videodrome (TV goes nuts). Heck, there’s probably a movie from the ’50s in which a waffle iron goes nuts and kills people. And therein lies the problem with Transcendence: It’s nothing we haven’t seen before.
Directed by Wally Pfister (who was previously Christopher Nolan’s cinematographer), Transcendence stars Johnny Depp as Will Caster, a scientist who — along with his wife, Evelyn (Iron Man 3’s Rebecca Hall) and best friend, Max (Paul Bettany from Master And Commander) — are trying to develop artificial intelligence towards the idea of being to upload your consciousness onto a computer. But when Will is mortally wounded by anti-technology terrorists, Evelyn and Max figure out a way to put their theories about A.I. into practice using Will’s brain.
Which, as you can easily figure out if you’ve ever seen a movie in which a new technology goes nuts, results in bad things happening. Then things start to go bad, people try to stop it, and so on and so forth until the credits roll.
The predictability of the plot isn’t the only problem with Transcendence. Though, ironically, one of the biggest comes from it not being predictable enough. Those bad things you see coming a mile away, they’re actually not that bad. In fact, some of the things that the Will A.I. does are actually good, really good. In a weird way, I almost wish they’d gone really cliché with this aspect and gone truly evil. Usually, I appreciate subtlety, but in this case I would’ve preferred a little whiz bang.
What’s rather ironic (and also not predictable) is that after the good guys inevitably prevail, the world is actually worse off, in some big ways, than it was when Will A.I. was doing stuff. Which just made me think Transcendence would’ve been far more interesting if the Will A.I. was good the whole time, and didn’t do anything bad or even unpleasant, but was destroyed by people overreacting. Sure, that would’ve been rather Twilight Zone/Rod Serling-esque, but at least it wouldn’t have been obvious. Or anti-climactic.
Transcendence also has problems of a technical and directorial nature. First off, it’s takes a while to get going, and while it never feels overly long, the beginning still could’ve been compressed a bit. It also has some ropey special effects, and one rather laughably bad use of slow-mo. Seriously, people sitting next to me in the theater were laughing at it.
It also has some egregious sound issues. At one point, for instance, there was a loud low tone that made me think they were trying to replicate the brown noise from that episode of South Park. Or that the theater’s subwoofers had blown out.
There’s also no emotional resonance to Transcendence. And I say this as someone who went to a funeral earlier that day. If you can’t make an emotional connection in a movie about rebirth and not wanting to let someone go with someone who just came from a funeral, you’ve got problems. (And no, to answer your next question, my post-funeral state of mind didn’t put me in a bad mood that clouded my opinion of the movie. I was in a good mood when I walked in the theater. I’d just eaten a dark chocolate Kit Kat.)
Then there’s Transcendence’s cast. While Depp is usually solid, he’s much better when he plays a weirdo, not some straight-laced scientist. Then there’s Cillian Murphy, who is an unconvincing as an FBI agent as Kate Mara is as one of the tech terrorists. And as a blonde with a bad dye job.
Though on the flipside, Hall does a good job as both Depp’s intellectual equal and his wife, as does Morgan Freeman as a fellow scientist. And the same goes for Bettany, though I did get a chuckle seeing him as one of the A.I. scientists, given how he’s been the voice of the A.I. Jarvis in the three Iron Man movies and The Avengers, and will be both Jarvis and the A.I. superhero The Vision in next year’s Avengers: Age Of Ultron.
While Bettany, Freeman, and Hall are good in the movie, they’re not the only things that work here. There are also parts of the plot that work better than you might expect. While we all know that the movie will go from Point A to Point B to Point C, there are things that happen between Points B and C that you might not expect. Okay, yes, making the Christ reference was obvious, but I didn’t expect there to also be shades of The Borg from Star Trek, or subtle nods to both The Terminator and The Matrix movies.
Transcendence is also not dull. Sure, there are times when you wish it would pick up the pace a little, and take things a bit further, but unless you just can’t stand to see another movie where technology goes horribly wrong, you won’t be bored by Transcendence.
Which is why I ultimately can’t recommend Transcendence, especially not in theaters, but can’t warn you off it either. If you still want to see it, I won’t stop you. Especially if your plan is to see it on cable or Netflix or some other format that won’t cost you anything. Where, I predict, you won’t wish you saw it in theaters, but you won’t hate yourself for watching it, either.