Transcendence (2014)

Director:  Wally Pfister
Cast:  Johnny DeppRebecca HallMorgan Freeman, Paul Bettany, Cillian Murphy, Kate Mara
Plot:  As Dr. Will Caster works toward his goal of creating an omniscient, sentient machine, a radical anti-technology organization fights to prevent him from establishing a world where computers can transcend the abilities of the human brain.

Genre:  Drama / Mystery / Sci-Fi
Awards:  -
Runtime:  119min
Rating:  PG for sci-fi action and violence, some bloody images, brief strong language and sensuality.

“Shut it down!”

This will go down as one of the most disappointing films of summer 2014.  Transcendence comes with the clout of the great, accomplished cinematographer-turned-director Wally Pfister.  This is his first feature as director after a string of stunning works as director of photography in collaboration with Christopher Nolan in films such as The Prestige (2006), The Dark Knight (2008) and Inception (2010). 

Transcendence is a movie of poor execution, despite its interesting themes.  In my opinion, Pfister and first-time screenwriter Jack Paglen should take most of the blame, while some of those I think would come out unscathed from this disaster are Rebecca Hall, who turns in a fine performance despite the insipid script, composer Mychael Danna with an atmospheric and occasionally rhythmic score, and ironically, Jess Hall, who shot a visually composed and elegant film.

Johnny Depp headlines another dud of a movie after the spectacular failure of The Lone Ranger (2013), but at least that tried to entertain.  He plays Dr. Will Caster, a giant in the field of technology and artificial intelligence, who is shot by a member of a radical anti-technology organization.  The bullet contains radiation and he is expected not to survive after a few months.  With his expertise and secret technology at his disposal, he uploads his brain to the computer mainframe with the help of his wife (Hall) before he 'dies'. 

The bulk of Transcendence centers on the idea of life after death, of existing through a network that connects us most – the Internet.  Other themes, many of them familiar in the sci-fi genre, such as the self-awareness of sentient machines, the perils of artificial intelligence, and religion (omnipresence) versus technology are explored.

There are never too many ideas to portray in a sci-fi film, but Transcendence messes them all up in a narrative that is so heavy with exposition that the movie never ever gathers momentum.  Reviewer Jake Coyle of the Associated Press described it as “the movie version of a paranoid TED talk”.  My fellow reviewer friend Vernon Chan calls it “this decade’s The Net (1995)”. 

For me, I think it feels like you are in a car with only the first gear working.  Pfister’s film is flat and lifeless.  I suggest you avoid it even if you may be curious.  Transcendence is also about regeneration, even if the film is beyond repair.  Well, the final nail in its coffin is seeing satellite dishes magically fixing themselves after being destroyed.  Now that is pushing the wrong button.

Verdict:  There are interesting ideas, but this movie heavy with exposition is a mess with poor execution.


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