On paper, Wally Pfister’s directorial debut “Transcendence,” written by first time screenwriter Jack Paglan, should have worked. As another sci-fi entry that explores the dangers of our increasing reliance on technology, the premise at least sounded intriguing, even if it isn’t anything groundbreaking. Helmed from Pfister, Christopher Nolan’s long-time cinematographer whose work in 2010’s “Inception” earned him an Academy Award, and with a cast led by Oscar-nominated actor Johnny Depp, what could possibly go wrong?
“Transcendence” tells the story of Will Caster (Johnny Depp), a leading researcher in the field of artificial intelligence, intent on pushing AI capabilities to its limit, such as creating a machine that possesses sentience and collective intelligence in an event called “transcendence.” At a presentation led by his wife Evelyn (Rebecca Hall) to attract potential sponsors, Will is shot by an anti-AI extremist with a bullet conveniently laced with radioactive materials, which will render his vital organs useless and cause his physical body to expire.
Evelyn in desperation uploads Will’s consciousness to the quantum processors of the advanced artificial intelligence program that they were working on, allowing Will to survive in digital form to complete the project, however with some objections from their friend Max (Paul Bettany). If it’s not already predictable enough, the film becomes very predictable onwards as the story dives deeper into a pool of sci-fi clichés.
Earlier this year, Spike Jonze’s eloquent “Her” explored a similar theme of human interaction and relationship with technology, displaying the artificial intelligence’s need for fulfillment in the most poignant fashion. Albeit the tonal difference, “Transcendence” could have went the same route, dissecting and re-inventing an age-old sci-fi trope of man vs. machine but it quickly turns into a quite disappointing cheap thriller.
The film begins with a flash-forward of the story, depicting the world filled with littered cell phones and keyboards, or “cultural apocalypse”, draining all the suspense when considering the narrative that follows.
I am indifferent towards Johnny Depp as an actor, because his list of good-to-great performances is easily matched by a list of his worst. In “Transcendence” Johnny Depp’s weakest, if not his most listless, performance to date, failing to depict the drive that possesses the character of Will Caster. When you play a computer, you never go full computer.
Wally Pfister succeeds in creating a good looking and well-produced film, and Rebecca Hall conveyed a sense of desperation and anxiety with aplomb, something that’s otherwise missing in almost every other aspect from this limp thriller. However, the romance between Will and Evelyn that’s supposed to drive the story never comes into full emotional effect. What is perhaps the worst quality about this film is that it’s so boring.
As stated above, the idea of machine turning rogue is the oldest science-fiction trope there is, and has been done countless times, but I wouldn’t have mind all of that if the film wasn’t so humorless and heavy-handed. In the end, not only is it not an update to the old science-fiction tales that we love so much, but also it’s not the thought-provoking cautionary tale about human’s overreliance on technology that it so wants to be.
NOT RECOMMENDED: “Transcendence” is a good looking, but bland and humorless debut from Wally Pfister.