Johnny Depp trapped in uncomfortable storyline as Transcendence fails to escape wacky pitfalls

1 out of 4 stars

When you are competing with iconic, artificial intelligence characters such as Joshua, Mother, and of course HAL, you had better make sure your AI sci-fi movie can stand up to snuff.  Transcendence just doesn’t, unfortunately.  A by-the-numbers script drags a potentially poignant fable of “man vs. machine” into ponderous territory and the characters never earn any sympathy.

As one of the world’s top researchers of artificial intelligence, Dr. Will Caster (Johnny Depp) finds himself under the scrutiny of a ruthless group of eco-centric cyber-terrorists headed by the mysterious Bree (Kate Mara).  During a strategic attack on AI scientists around the world including Will’s close friend Joseph Tagger (Morgan Freeman), a member of the terrorist group shoots Will with a radiation-laced bullet.

johnny-depps-transcendence-has-an-official-synopsisWill is told he will die in a matter of weeks, and his wife Evelyn (Rebecca Hall) and colleague/friend Max Waters (Paul Bettany) decide that they have no choice but to use the technology they have available to make a digital copy of Will’s brain and upload it to a computer system in an attempt to “save” his life before his body dies.  Their efforts seem successful until they begin to have doubts about whether the intelligence in the computer truly is the Will they once knew.

First-time director Wally Pfister has given us some of the new millennium’s most beautiful cinematography to date as the singular director of photography for all of Christopher Nolan’s films (Pfister even won an Oscar for his work on Inception).  Transcendence shows his singular vision as a visual artist, for better and for worse.

Pfister clearly knows his angles and shots, some of which prove to be the saving graces of the film.  In particular, his collaboration with cinematographer Jess Hall (Hot Fuzz, The Spectacular Now) works best when taking advantage of the many reflective surfaces and screens.  Close up shots of organic life seem better suited for shampoo commercials, but nothing ever comes across particularly jarring.

Pfister unfortunately struggles when it comes to the drama of the story (he is let down a little by the screenplay, which we will get to soon).  The actors all appear to be on autopilot, likely because of a lack of focus on the stakes.  None of the plot twists ever seem disturbing enough to merit conflict because no one on screen ever seems disturbed.

A choppy editing job also creates the sense that none of the plot points ever carry any of their weight over to the next incident, so every major event comes across as superfluous to the narrative.  Some respect for the characters would have saved an otherwise confusing and ultimately slow story.

Depp can't escape this film. (Screenshot)
Depp can’t escape this film. (Screenshot)

The admittedly intriguing premise of a man turned into a machine never quite sings because the script from first-time screenwriter Jack Paglen just lacks focus.  He could have concentrated on the relationship between Will and Evelyn, the science behind making a man into a machine, the moral conflict of such a process, etc. 

Instead, Paglen tries to juggle all of these themes and more simultaneously and, as a result, none of them carry enough weight to merit our attention as an audience.  Will and Evelyn’s story arc flies into the stratosphere, the process of uploading Will’s brain gets skimmed over, and the audience loses any interest in morality once the second act commences and things start getting crazy.

No, I mean CRAZY.  Once Will has been uploaded to the computer, credibility is thrown out the window and gaping plot holes (let’s just say someone from the FBI would have noticed acres of hardware suddenly sprouting from the ground) appear on top of story contrivances and just plain wacky twists.

In addition, Evelyn loses any trace of rationality and becomes immensely unlikeable.  Pfister clearly wants some sympathy for the doomed Casters and never succeeds because of how utterly insane the couple sounds as they plan out their next plan of attack to help Will.  Eventually, the relationship gets downright creepy and fights Pfister’s attempts even harder.

Much to the misfortune of the ensemble, character relationships ultimately reveal themselves to be secondary to the story.  Character arcs take such sharp turns that the actors cannot mask their difficulty with the material.  The characters cannot create comprehensible, logical decisions because they have been written to serve the plot points alone.  As a result, Freeman, Bettany, and Mara become scenery for Depp and Hall’s uncomfortable storyline.

Wally Pfister has proven to be one of the most talented filmmakers of our time.  His abilities with shadows and filters on films such as The Prestige, Moneyball, and the Dark Knight trilogy speak for themselves.  His work as a director may be a bit rough around the edges in contrast, but ultimately Transcendence suffers most from its storytelling.  With a little more attention to detail and character, an undeniably original sci-fi epic could have truly blossomed.