With Transcendence, celebrated cinematographer Wally Pfister (Memento, The Prestige, Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy, Inception, Moneyball) adds the tag of ‘director’ to his list of qualifications. As 100-million-dollar debut films go, this (notional) Johnny Depp-starrer is a mess.
I say notional because Rebecca Hall seems to be in way more scenes than any other actor. It is possible that Morgan Freeman or Paul Bettany get as much screen time as the man whose face they’ve used to market this movie. So Mr. Depp is the star of Transcendence simply because the events that play out in this movie do so because of his character, Dr. Will Caster.
Still, it is his wife Evelyn (Hall) who decides to upload his consciousness to a computer when it is discovered that a failed attempt upon Caster’s life didn’t exactly fail – it just delayed his demise. Against the objections of their friend Max (Bettany), Evelyn undertakes the process of uploading her husband onto a powerful computer. And when the terrorist group led by Bree (Kate Mara) attempts to destroy the computer, Evelyn uploads Will to the Internet.
Once Will spreads across the web (I feel a little silly just typing that sentence) he becomes supremely powerful, very quickly. And that’s when the humans start to get really upset.
Transcendence is flirting with some big ideas, but the flirtation doesn’t yield even the equivalent of a one night stand.
Let’s begin by discussing the flip-flopping nature of Evelyn’s character. She undergoes way too many changes of heart/mind about her virtual husband without proper motivation. If it is truly possible for a single hand-scribbled note to shatter the foundations of a marriage that prompted her to upload her husband to a computer to keep him alive, what does that really say about the marriage?
In lieu of an in-depth examination of what it actually means to be human, we are given worst case scenarios based on little more than one group of characters telling another group of characters what is, or isn’t, the truth. Or reality.
At one point, a character looks at an object on a video screen and estimates its weight. Now how likely is it, really, that the leader of a terrorist group is spending her limited online research time (before her IP is traced or something) finding out what that particular piece of equipment might weigh, so that she can recall this factoid later to comment on a video she’s watching?
This type of pointlessness permeates the film, quite like the nanotechnology that is present all around Will’s underground bunker.
In a movie where several characters are talking to a computer screen it is useless to discuss performances. Also, considering that this is the feature directing debut of a cinematographer it was surprising to note that Mr. Pfister’s movie looks…strange, and not entirely together. At various points in the movie, wide shots looked like they were sourced from a stock footage library.
Final Analysis: From watching him perform it is unclear if Mr. Depp is bored, or just uncomfortable, with the material. Either way it is no fun at all watching him transcend.
My Advice: This did not feel like a big screen movie at all. It can’t be that long before it’s playing on a TV network somewhere near you.