Friday 25 April 2014

Film Review: Transcendence

Transcendence is the directorial début from Wally Pfister, long-time cinematographer for Christopher Nolan. Starring Johnny Depp, Rebecca Hall and Paul Bettany, Transcendence is a sci-fi drama centred on the notion of sentient artificial intelligences, and the dangers of technology. 

A cool concept, one rife with moral quandaries to be plumbed. Shame then, that the execution is so disappointingly lacking.

Johnny Depp stars in the lead role as Dr. Will Caster, a famous scientist in the field of artificial intelligence. His partner, in both life and science, is Evelyn Caster, played by Rebecca Hall. Together, the two are nearing a breakthrough on crafting a sentient computer that can feel and act like a person.

After attending a science conference with contemporary Max (Paul Bettany), an attempt is made on Will's life by a dangerous terrorist organisation called R.I.F.T, lead by Bree (Kate Mara), who're hell bent on preventing the creation of any AI to take place. Will, given just a month to live after discovering the bullet was laced with radioactive materials, tries to find a way to upload his consciousness into a computer, and continue living as an AI.

The central narrative device in Transcendence, one of sentient computers and the moral repercussions, is not one that is new to science-fiction in the slightest, with the most iconic of course being HAL 9000 from Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey. Despite this, it is still a topical and relevant 'what if?' scenario that can be intriguing and thought-provoking if done right; think the Geth in the Mass Effect universe.

In Transcendence, I found that the film wasn't sure of what it was trying to communicate - I couldn't take any clear 'message' from it. Was it a cautionary tale? An endorsement of AI's? Was Will, who's power began to spiral out of control, the protagonist or antagonist? Pfister doesn't make his point clear, and it takes away from the initially mouth-watering concept.

The real issue with this film is the pacing - when it reaches the middle third, it's amazingly slow. After the initial set-up, the entire plot turns to treacle, oozing along at a snail's pace. It never really feels like there is a race against time or urgency to the plot. Considering it affects the entire world, the big 'crescendo' is surprisingly devoid of tension. Also, it seems a bit odd that the most intriguing part of the film be left to audiences to ponder on their own - the whole film essentially serves as a prologue to a more interesting sci-fi film, and could be summarised in a quick ten minute intro.

It was refreshing to see Depp in a role other than wacky Burton/Bruckenheimer mode, as we've seen in the last few years with The Lone Ranger, Dark Shadows, Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides and Alice in Wonderland. For what it's worth, I thought his performance both in and out of the computer was good, a sinister mix of intelligence and coldness.

Likewise, I liked Rebecca Hall's character Evelyn, even if she was immensely dim for a scientist. Blinded by love for her husband, Evelyn's refusal to switch off the computer housing Will's consciousness in the first place causes the whole damn thing. Not only that, but she spends the entire middle part of the film literally building a huge facility to continue powering him. Annoying character development aside, Hall's acting was good, especially after losing Depp.

Bettany is possibly the best thing about the cast, essentially playing the voice of reason. His character also undergoes the most notable development throughout the film. Morgan Freeman and Cillian Murphy are also along for the ride but given surprisingly little to actually do. Freeman, as always, is given the task of providing essential exposition in his awesome voice, whilst Murphy's role as Agent Buchanan is ambiguous from the

In terms of direction, Pfister's début is assured but not as striking as anything seen from his work with Nolan on The Dark Knight trilogy or Inception. There are no mind-bending camera tricks or things that really stood out for me.

The Verdict: 4/10

Transcendence is a great concept - but just a good concept a good film does not make. It's got a handful of solid performances and the direction was good. It's just a shame that the muddled narrative marred its potential somewhat. Underwhelming, given the talent behind it. 

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