The Good: Moments of philosophy and character, The acting is good, Decent pacing
The Bad: Derivative plot concepts, Most of the characters are indistinct in such a way that the viewer does not truly care about them.
The Basics: Transcendence is an interesting, philosophically-based science fiction drama that utilizes a number of familiar elements so that it feels more stale than it (probably) is objectively.
Every now and then, I find myself surprised by what makes it into movie theaters, not for how audacious the ideas are, but rather for how those ideas have already been done years ago. In the case of the new film Transcendence, I found myself somewhat surprised because the central concepts of the film have been postulated to death in science fiction. In fact, while I want to suggest that Transcendence is little more than a sophisticated version of the Star Trek: Deep Space Nine episode “Our Man Bashir” (reviewed here!) which used the conceit of storing brain patterns in a computer in order to present a James Bond holodeck parody episode, the film is much more an action-oriented upgrade to the original Star Trek episode “Spock’s Brain” (reviewed here!). Either way, when as a fan of science fiction, I can easily pull out two examples fifteen and forty-five years old out to compare the concept of a new film with, it’s hard to call that film audacious or groundbreaking.
To be fair to Transcendence, the film is a bit smarter and more complex than “Spock’s Brain,” but the essential premise is the same. However, instead of being motivated by the fear of losing one physical crewmember to a planet where he is enslaved to a machine, Transcendence follows a team of scientists split on the ethical issues surrounding an artificial intelligence that one prominent member of the team is concerned about becoming enslaved to. The political and psychological complexity of Transcendence makes it worth watching, but it is hardly an extraordinary drama or science fiction film.
Dr. Will Caster is a scientist and mathematician who has been working for years to develop an artificial intelligence that can develop a true consciousness. His partner, Max Waters, wants to use the technology the team is developing to cure cancer and benefit all of humanity. But during a public event, Caster is shot at and his main laboratory is attacked (using poison cake) with an anti-technology group taking credit. Caster (and his wife), Tagger, Waters, and FBI Agent Buchanan rendezvous at the least damaged of the A.I. research centers where they reveal to Buchanan the presence of their most comprehensive neural net, which may be a true artificial consciousness. But Will Caster soon collapses, whatwith the bullet that shot him being coated in a radioactive isotope that is killing him, and Waters and Evelyn Caster debate plugging Will into a machine that could duplicate and transfer his consciousness into an artificial neural net.
After embedding a card into his skull and working to copy his brain, Will Caster’s body dies. But soon, Max and Evelyn discover his consciousness is still operating within the computer system and the two begin to communicate with the disembodied Will. Waters finds himself concerned by the potential for Will’s artificial intelligence form to grow and develop in such a way that he tries to take over the world by digitally manipulating government and the economy, as well as aspects of technology and scientific development currently unrealized. To that end, he is approached by his former student, Bree, who shared Water’s fear of what an a.i. could become when she saw how the monkey brain a.i. reacted to disembodiment. Soon, the concerns Waters and the technophobes had are realized when Will begins expanding his influence in medical technology and his interface. Buchanan and Tagger witness the Will artificial intelligence curing a man’s blindness and their meeting with him leaves them unsettled. As Will begins to heal people, Tagger and Buchanan come to believe that the people he is healing are coming under Will’s control and they join forces with Waters and the terrorist group to try to bury the artificial intelligence army threat before it can be fully realized.
When I first heard about Transcendence, I thought it might be a blend of Revolution (the television series) and The Matrix. When Will Caster begins to raise an army of human drones whose bodies he creates, the film starts to take on a number of similarities to The Borg from the Star Trek franchise, though instead of devolving into a technozombie film, Transcendence works to keep focused on a tighter, more character-driven concept. Will Caster continues to show Evelyn her own dreams and that leads his very human wife to fear how deep Caster is inside her head. The film, despite having a very familiar science fiction premise, is entertaining and engaging because it acts as a somewhat natural precursor to popular and successful science fiction films that deal with humanity enslaved by artificial technologies. If The Matrix was about humanity’s desperate struggle to free themselves from machines, Transcendence is about a resistance that forms at the outset of the creation of the matrix (though not literally in the same universe). Amid talks of nanites and artificial intelligences that are sweeping through the very air around Will Caster’s subterranean facility, there is a smartly grounded human-focused story of people who just want to survive, untainted by the will of another.
Fortunately for those who are not as plugged into modern science fiction, Transcendence peppers enough easy-to-understand concepts in with all of the technobabble. Amid the jargon about artificial intelligences and nanites, the plan to keep humanity safe is boiled down to the simple idea that the computer code which keeps “Will” “alive” inside the mainframe must be infected with a virus, but that same virus would destroy the internet and all computers.
The thing is, because it starts so tech-heavy and because it covers so much ground on establishing its premises, the characters in Transcendence do not have time to become viable characters that the viewer cares about. As a result, the plot speeds along with the characters knowing what is coming (the plot progresses entirely based upon the fears of those who opposed Will Caster’s work) without any of them having any stunning epiphanies or intense moments that make the viewer care about their predicament. While that might not be the death knell of Transcendence, it’s enough to keep it from being easy to recommend or champion. So, while the themes of human resilience and human ingenuity in the face of possible extinction make for potentially engaging character moments, none of the characters in Transcendence are well-rounded enough to rise to the occasion to make the viewer care about them.
On the acting front, Johnny Depp gets top billing and it is unfortunate that Transcendence has him playing one of his least memorable characters ever. As Dr. Will Caster, Depp is unable to bring to bear any of the charisma or talent that has made him a household name. Depp is adept and serious (as appropriate for the role) as Caster, but he also comes across as bland and dry throughout Transcendence. In a similar way, Morgan Freeman is completely wasted as Tagger and Rebecca Hall could have been swapped out for virtually any other actress working in Hollywood today given how little she is asked to do as Evelyn and how little on-screen chemistry she has with Depp.
Ultimately, Transcendence is an overly simple presentation of a complicated philosophical and technological idea. It is an attempted blockbuster for a philosophy lesson and, as such, it is unsurprising that it largely underwhelms.
For other works with Rebecca Hall, please check out my reviews of:
Iron Man 3
A Bag Of Hammers
Everything Must Go
For other movie reviews, please check out my Film Review Index Page for an organized listing!
© 2014 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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