Transcendence – 2014

Director Wally Pfister
Starring Johnny Depp, Rebecca Hall, Paul Bettany, Kate Mara, Cillian Murphy, Morgan Freeman, Cole Hauser, Clifton Collins, Jr.
Screenplay Jack Paglen

Transcendence is the kind of film that tries to answer the question about man’s want to supersede the limitations of human frailty.  The path taken is a transfer of consciousness of Dr. Will Caster into the world-wide net.  That it takes its time getting anywhere works in its favor, so long as you can tolerate the pace and Depp in super slow motion.  It’s easy to appreciate because the ideas deviate from the norm at first.

Will and Evelyn (Hall) Caster are artificial-intelligence researchers, along with their friends Max (Bettany) and Joseph (Freeman). As the Casters are attending a function celebrating Will, Joseph’s office is attacked by a group called Revolutionary Independence from Technology (R.I.F.T.).  Another faction of the group, lead by Bree (Mara) shoots Will with an irradiated bullet after his speech.  Seemingly fine at first, the effects of the bullet are determined to be eventually fatal to Will.

Desperate to cling onto her husband, Evelyn and Max attempt to recreate a project tried only on a monkey before.  The goal is to transfer Will’s consciousness into a quantum computer. Whether this works or not is a subject for debate, but the being on the other side of the attempt requests to be connected to the internet almost immediately after coming to life.

This is enough to spook Max, who takes off, only to be kidnapped by the extremists.  Joseph, meanwhile, has started working with FBI agent Donald Buchanan (Murphy) and while noticing the effects of Will’s internet connected being, takes some time to figure out.

Where the movie goes from here shall not be discussed in this review. It would be fair to say that what Will and Evelyn do is as intriguing as it is fascinating. The concepts breached with nano-technology give a new, non-Terminator twist to our future in technology. Some of the implications are fascinating, and some are a little scary. Overall, though, it seems like a win for humanity.

Unfortunately, the script writer does not know where to go once they get this far, so they fall back on the Frankenstein story line, where if it’s hard to understand, or just seems weird, we should kill it. This low road attempt at storytelling undercuts the better parts of the story and makes the last quarter of the film almost unwatchable. Mara’s character, in particular, seems nuttier than a loon.  To see the people who choose to ignore what she’s done and follow her goals in the end is confusing at best, lackluster at worst.

This film is not about the acting, and it’s really surprising they spent the money on acquiring the talent they did just to have them wither away on platitudes and action rolls. Depp is subdued to the point of seemingly being in a coma from the first call to action. Freeman, Murphy and Mara offer nothing. Bettany’s character could have been very interesting.  That he is not is the fault of all involved. It’s about time Bettany lived up to his talent. Rebecca Hall does the most legwork here. She is good enough to make up for the rest of what is lacking and make us wait to see what will happen next.

Pfister is one of the best cinematographers around.  His work on Inception alone is enough for me to want to follow his career. He is hamstrung by a script that needed more, but he does well in the visual area to make up for the awkward pacing. That Paglen is the one scribing the second Prometheus film is a concern for me. His work here is half-inspired, half-retread. He needs to seek more questions and show fewer answers.

Those seeking something to do while staying home could do worse than Transcendence. At worst it’s watching a bunch of people you recognize just moving around on the screen to no apparent purpose. It’s sad that it leads with its best ideas. One gets the feeling they are headed somewhere fresh and new, but they end up at Walmart.

(*** out of *****)

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