Hollywood has used the “man meets machine” plot point many, many times over the years. We have seen several incarnations of cyborgs, we have explored the emotional implications of technological advancement, and occasionally, we do get an original concept that makes us really consider what our world will look like in an A.I.-centric era. Transcendence is another attempt to get our mental wheels turning, but its pacing, performances and plot barely grease the gears.
The film stars Johnny Depp (Pirates of the Caribbean) as Dr. Will Castor, a researcher and scientist that heads efforts to further develop artificial intelligence. Will Castor is a popular and public figure who is quickly targeted and shot by a guerrilla anti-tech group called R.I.F.T.. In order to save Will, his wife Evelyn, portrayed by Rebecca Hall (Iron Man 3) and close friend Max played by Paul Bettany (The Da Vinci Code), use a program that they created called P.I.N.N. to upload Will’s consciousness. When Will goes live online, he expresses a limitless potential, as he suddenly advances intelligence efforts beyond the present day and has access to global networks. When he urges his wife that he needs more power, Evelyn is prompted to create a large facility in the middle of a desert, below an isolated town, so that he can continue to grow and share his outputs. Max on the other hand is very doubtful of this new, advanced Will, and soon joins forces with R.I.F.T. to bring Dr. Castor down.
A bulk of this story comes down to Evelyn’s desire to hold on tight to her husband, especially when his new form enhances his ability to help save the world. Physical disabilities, global poverty, and the water crisis slowly become easily solvable issues, all because of Will’s synthetic creations. As a fellow doctor/tech-advocate, it’s all Evelyn has ever dreamed of and then some because she gets to keep her husband. The problem is that she fails to differentiate between her husband and the computer program that she merged him with so that he could live on. It’s really the only emotional thread of the film and Rebecca Hall carries it well enough. Audience members will surely identify with her character’s difficulty in letting her husband go because Hall convinces you that her distorted hope is legitimate. Unfortunately, when it does waver, any belief in her character also gets thrown out the window because her changes don’t feel as natural as one would want them to feel.
But at least she’s not as flat as her co-stars. Johnny Depp’s talents are not really used in this film as his character has little personality, regardless of whether he is a human or a digital projection. You are never completely satisfied with his love for Evelyn as you are vice-versa. Sure, you may catch a glint of excitement and possibility in his eyes whenever he actually “transcends” human and technological capabilities, but there is nothing that defines him as a compelling antagonist.
There are a lot of supporting characters played by some pretty well known people in this film, including R.I.F.T. leader Bree (Kate Mara, House of Cards), Donald, an FBI agent played by Cilian Murphy (Batman Begins), and Morgan Freeman’s Joseph, who is Will’s mentor. Mara and Murphy both represent these two key elements to the entire technological evolution debate, which are the naysayers and the policing. But instead of building these ideas into a more intricate message, they are quickly reduced to being Will and to an extent, Evelyn’s adversaries. This happens to Freeman and Bettany as well, giving them, especially the former, little purpose to the film at all. All of their combined stories end up pointlessly slowing down the entire storyline. This is especially frustrating because at the beginning, we are given a glimpse into the future, post-events of the film, so you know throughout the course of the story how it is going to end. While there are a few moments where the movie gives you something to consider, those pondering thoughts get squashed pretty easily by the pacing which begs you to ask, “Are we there yet?” more often than you ever should have to ask during a film.
At least first-time director Wally Pfister, a cinematographer who worked closely with The Batman Trilogy director Christopher Nolan , delivers some beautifully crafted visuals. Will and Evelyn’s sleek labs, the dilapidated school, and even the main couple’s backyard are all presented through the use of these intimate shots that capture some really lovely details, like water droplets. Pfister’s skill gives the film a really pleasant aesthetic that’s tidy and well pulled together. Sadly, the content does not nearly measure up to the image, making Transcendence more about the look and the intention rather than the actual execution.