Following the programme
MOVIE titles are important – they set the tone of the film, create expectations, and give us insight into the plot. So when you name your science fiction film something as grand as Transcendence, you can’t blame the audience for expecting, at the very least, an eye-opening experience.
Transcendence, however, while quite an enjoyable watch, never manages to rise above its familiar, banal premise into the levels of sci-fi that is truly mind-blowing and transformative. Instead, most of its plot turns simply feel like any number of 1980s or 1990s technophobia-laced storylines, just dressed up in sleek, post-2000 aesthetics.
It’s not for lack of trying, though. First-time director Wally Pfister gives the movie the visual flair you’d expect from someone who was director of photography in works like Inception and The Dark Knight.
The story of Transcendence is packed full, and for about the first half an hour, even seems like it may be something innovative.
Dr Will Caster (Johnny Depp) is a top researcher in the field of Artificial Intelligence (AI), who works with his wife Evelyn (Rebecca Hall) and best friend Max Waters (Paul Bettany).
On the brink of creating a sentient machine with omniscient intelligence and the full range of human emotions, Will becomes the target of a group of anti-technology extremists who call themselves RIFT, whose aim is to prevent the creation of AI at all costs.
When Will is mortally injured in a RIFT attack, Evelyn and Max’s only solution to keep him alive is to merge his consciousness with his AI creation. The result is a digital Will who lives on the Internet and has the entire depth and breadth of human knowledge.
Things take a sinister turn, however, when Will begins using his knowledge and access to manipulate and control humans, on what seems to be a quest to gain absolute power over humanity.
Meanwhile, Evelyn desperately holds on to what she has left of her relationship with Will – which is basically talking to his image on a screen or through a headset – while Max starts questioning just how much of the real Will is left in this new creation.
(In case you’re wondering, “transcendence” refers to the AI’s ability to go beyond the limitations of the human brain.)
There are many fascinating elements here, but the script, by newcomer Jack Paglen, never actually dwells on anything long enough for it to have any depth. The idea of a terrorist group targetting technology, for instance, is ripe with potential, but they are reduced to a mere plot device. Even the idea of a woman keeping her relationship alive with a digital version of her husband is intriguing, but never really dealt with.
Instead, Transcendence simply moves from one plot point to another, revealing the story but with hardly any real excitement or suspense.
As the computers-taking-over-the-world element becomes the focus, the movie starts feeling more and more predictable, bringing to mind countless others that revolve around the same concept.
What’s more, for a film that is depicting the potential takeover of the world by an AI, it never manages to create a real sense of urgency or threat – for all that FBI agent Buchanan (Cillian Murphy) and voice-ofreason researcher Joseph Tagger (who else?
Morgan Freeman) are going all out to stop Will, it never feels like anyone is in any real danger.
Part of the reason could be the uninspired depiction of Will himself. While Depp is perfectly likeable as the human Will, his disembodied voice and occasional digital images don’t offer much in the way of character – HAL 9000, Depp’s AI certainly isn’t. Hall and Bettany are more memorable, but suffer from a lack of character development, while capable actors like Murphy and Freeman are given little to do except show up when the story requires them to.
In the end, for all its lofty ambitions, Transcendence remains limited by its execution, that never quite manages to go beyond the expected.