I walked into Transcendence with admittedly mild expectations. This is the directorial debut of Oscar-winning Inception DP Wally Pfister, and although he has prove time and time again in the past decade that he can frame a beautiful shot, I doubted his abilities to convey complex characters and meaningful themes, seeing as his partner-in-crime of the past, Christopher Nolan, tends to fall relatively flat in those crucial areas, and he’s the experienced director of the two.
Pfister proves me wrong with Transcendence. No, it’s not our generation’s Jaws or anything earth shattering like that, but it certainly exceeds expectations for run-of-the-mill popcorn blockbusters. As one would expect from a complicated Hollywood sci-fi action movie, it’s filled to the brim with plot holes and flaws, two-dimensional supporting characters, questionable scientific logic, convenient plot developments, etc. But I’m the kind of person who thinks everyone’s usually better off when they highlight the positives rather than dwell on negatives – so that’s what I’m primarily going to do here. Why watch movies if you just want to complain about them?
Transcendence evokes the philosophically contemporary themes of Her, the insurmountable dread of The Terminator, and the impressive pacing and complexity of Looper. This is the story of Evelyn Castor (Rebecca Hall), a scientist who uploads the mind of her dying husband (Johnny Depp) onto their AI computer in an attempt to salvage his mortality in a way that has never before in the history of mankind been possible. What happens next demonstrates an ongoing debate regarding the potential, mesmerizing or dire, of the unknown power of the infinite advancement of technology. It forces you to ponder life’s ultimate questions regarding the interplay of mortality and meaning, humanity and responsibility, love and power, faith and knowledge. That’s a lot for one movie to deal with, and you might actually find yourself uncomfortably daunted by the scope and magnitude of what this movie is talking about, especially if you’re just looking for a night to vegetate at the movies.
Of course, nothing about these topics can really be answered. What I really appreciated about Transcendence is that it doesn’t bother trying to answer anything; its goals are realistic. This could have been a preachy movie so, so easily, but its stance remains neutral. It feeds the audience things to consider and discover on their own accord, rather than dictating a simplistic dichotomous moral as many movies end up doing. You’re never quite sure who you’re rooting for; you can’t categorize heroes, anti-heroes, and villains. That touch of reality is rare for this type of movie, and I’m glad the filmmakers took the risk and the effort of adding the layer of complexity. The movie ends up a lot less fun and a lot more troublesome, but I believe in the end that’s the most rewarding route to take.
The screenwriter, Jack Pagland, deserves applaud for tackling such a grand concept. Even though he falls short of his lofty goals much of the time, his effort is remarkable and rare. Johnny Depp underwhelms, no surprise to anyone who’s seen one of his films in the past ten years or so, but at least he’s not caked in makeup and grandiosity more fit for a drag show than for the silver screen as usual. His role is also quite a bit smaller than the marketing implies; the real star is Rebecca Hall, who absolutely shines. I’m baffled Hall has gone so unnoticed – with her talent, she should be a household name by now. Here, she evokes the raw immersion of Cate Blanchett. I have high hopes for Hall’s career. The supporting actors (Morgan Freeman, Paul Bettany, Cillian Murphy) have disappointingly little to work; their roles aren’t even worth comment. Kate Mara, unfortunately, as I’m a fan, is laughably unintimidating as the hippie-terrorist stock character.
As expected from a director specializing in cinematography, Transcendence has some beautiful shots of nature. Pfister’s persistent defense of real film –very fitting to the film’s themes of old vs. new—pays off in this gorgeous movie. This is a lofty and often inconsistent movie, like many super sci-fi blockbusters nowadays, but it’s well worth watching and even if it fails to connect you emotionally to the characters, it will certainly make you think.
Review by Matthew D’Innocenzo