On paper “Transcendence” sounded like a sure thing. It had an intriguing science fiction premise. It had a fabulous cast featuring Johnny Depp, Rebecca Hall, Paul Bettany, Morgan Freeman, and Cillian Murphy. It was the directorial debut from one of my favorite cinematographers Wally Pfister. But as with anything you can have some great pieces but that does automatically equal a great whole. That’s certainly the case with “Transcendence”.
Without question “Transcendence” is a film with loads of ambition and some good things to say. It gets off to a good start and lays an interesting foundation. Dr. Will Caster (Depp) is a renowned scientist working on the creation of a sentient artificial intelligence. His devoted wife Evelyn (Hall) is a strong supporter and organizes the funding for his research. His best friend Max (Bettany) is a fellow scientist and an important contributor to Will’s work.
After speaking at a science and technology convention Will is shot by an anti-technology extremist. The act is part of a series of attacks by a terrorist group known as R.I.F.T. That stands for “Revolutionary Independence From Technology” and if you need something else to make you laugh, one of their weapons of choice is a poisonous birthday cake. Oh, and the bullet used on Will is radioactive. It poisons his blood and with no cure available he is given a month to live.
Desperate to hang onto her husband, Evelyn uploads Will’s consciousness to a super computer. He soon dies but is revived within the computer. Hunted down by R.I.F.T. and their dogged leader Bree (Kate Mara), Evelyn uploads Will to the internet giving him freedom and access to all the web’s information. As with any A.I. (or so we’re told) they survive by getting more information. With Evelyn’s help Will grows more powerful and soon crowds the line between helping the world and overtaking it.
This collision between mankind and technology does provide for some good conversation. There is also a compelling unconventional love story buried within this material. Unfortunately to get much of either you have to navigate through a litany of cavernous plot holes and inconceivable stretches of our imagination. As the movie moves forward we are constantly asked to overlook numerous gaps in logic and in the story itself. The film ends up smothering all of the interesting elements with one narrative blunder after another.
It also doesn’t help that some of the film’s plot machinations are so incredibly preposterous and implausible. This is frustrating because once again it overshadows the intriguing concepts that do have a lot of promise. We just can’t buy into it all and at times it looks like the cast doesn’t either. I wouldn’t say that they are phoning in their performances. There are moments where they are trying to salvage something from the ramshackle script, especially Hall and Bettany. But no one feels thoroughly engaged or convinced in the material.
Again, “Transcendence” looked good on paper but not in execution. It has so much going for it but it lacks one vital component – a competent script. There is a good story to be found here and I got just enough to be annoyed by the mishandling of it. It did engage me at first and I really liked what the film was going for with its ending. It’s the rocky road in between that makes this a tough movie to recommend. And that’s a shame because this should have and could have been better.