By Mark Saldana
Rating: 2 (Out of 4 Stars)
This directorial debut for cinematographer Wally Pfister definitely disappoints, but this is mainly due to a script that has dull characters and sends multiple unclear messages. Considering that Pfister is quite the accomplished and talented cinematographer, the look of the film is gorgeous, but the overall experience is rather empty. It doesn’t particularly help that Johnny Depp delivers a robotic performance, devoid of charm or likability. In fact, most of the characters here are rather bland and uninteresting. Pfister and his writers attempt to deliver a thrilling and exciting climax, but that’s where the film jumps the proverbial shark.
Depp stars as Dr. Will Caster, an artificial intelligence research scientist who has developed an advanced sentient computer and software feared by the government and an extremist group. This group attempts to assassinate Caster and succeeds in grazing him with a poisonous bullet. This doesn’t instantly kill him, but gives him a limited amount of time to live and develop his technology further. Before he dies, he requests that his wife Evelyn (Rebecca Hall) and his friend Max (Paul Bettany) upload his mind to his machine so that he will have the chance to remain immortal and finish his life’s work. This technological advancement comes with a huge price, as Will’s hunger for knowledge and power costs him his humanity and could possibly threaten the humanity of the entire world.
The problem with this film doesn’t lie so much with its message, but rather with the measures the filmmakers take to illustrate it. Plot holes, laughably far fetched and incredulous scenarios, and contradictions in the message make this film rather messy. Whatever intelligent goal the filmmakers have in making this movie gets muddled by poor writing. To be fair, the subject of technology and artificial intelligence is a complicated one, but Pfister and writer Jack Paglen make the subject worse by contradicting themselves and using ridiculous worst case scenarios to show the downside of technological advancement.
It also does not help at all that Paglen fails to make a strong empathetic case for its characters. The Casters and Waters have such a boring and bland introduction in the movie. These characters lack so much charm and likability that I found it really difficult to empathize with them. The actors share some of the blame as well. Depp’s performance is so flat and robotic that it works when he becomes a sentient computer, but this seriously takes away from the impact of the film when its key theme has to do with the loss of humanity. Bettany offers a descent performance, but is working with so little in the script. Hall probably delivers the most passionate performance in the film, but again suffers from the scripts limitations. The movie also includes performances by Cillian Murphy, Morgan Freeman, Kate Mara and Clifton Collins, Jr. Murphy, Freeman, and Collins, Jr. don’t have much to do in the film, and Mara fails to portray a believable political extremist.
I know my rating of the film probably seems generous after my list of grievances, but the middle act does have some satisfying and compelling moments. Sadly, though, the movie is book-ended by a dull, lifeless intro and a tall tale of a climax. Pfister begins his directorial career with a rough start, but does show promise. He just needs to be trusted with a much better screenplay. Transcendence is not transcendent at all and will be easily forgetten.