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Transcendence Review

“Can you prove you’re self-aware?”

Transcendence, the directorial debut of longtime Christopher Nolan collaborator Wally Pfister, asks that question on two occasions. Viewers would be wise to ask that same question of the film. On the surface, Transcendence is a big, beautiful movie with big, beautiful ideas. Beneath that thin layer, however, is little more than a shallow pool of freezing-cold water; swimming is not advised.

Johnny Depp stars as Dr. Will Caster, the world’s leading authority on artificial intelligence. His life’s work centers on mastering a concept called “singularity” — or “transcendence,” as he calls it — in which a machine becomes sentient, complete with unparalleled intelligence and a full range of human emotion. It’s a dazzling, daunting prospect, one that ultimately makes Caster the target of an assassination attempt.

The frigid Transcendence owes much of its temperature to its characters, or lack thereof.

Poisoned and wasting away, Caster has weeks to live, perhaps even days. But his wife and fellow scientist Evelyn (Rebecca Hall) won’t let Will die without a fight. With the help of best friend Max Waters (Paul Bettany), she connects Will to PINN, the “physically independent neural network,” blessing him with digital afterlife. Evelyn achieves her dying husband’s lifelong dream — at the expense of unleashing what just might be humanity’s greatest nightmare.

There are interesting concepts at play in Transcendence. The idea of merging man and machine, referred to in the film as the “unavoidable collision of mankind and technology,” is well worth exploring. It presents profound philosophical questions that deserve debate, questions that can fill the mind and swell the heart long after the final frame.

Of course, countless other films have asked these questions in the distant and recent past. Transcendence adds nothing new or unique to that conversation. It doesn’t measure up against the Oscar-winning Her, which employed humor, heartache, and inevitability to explore similar ideas. It doesn’t come close to 2001: A Space Odyssey, forever the high-mark for stories of computers gone bad. It doesn’t touch WALL-E. It doesn’t touch Terminator. Honestly, it doesn’t even touch The Net; dated as it is, at least that silly Sandra Bullock thriller is fun.

Yet, watching Transcendence, there’s a sense that the film wants to live up to its title, by transcending all those aforementioned films and more. But in its attempt, it loses sight of what makes these movies work.

Transcendence movie

The film approaches its characters, story, world, and philosophical issues with razor-focused seriousness. There’s no playfulness, no room for levity. If there are laughs in the theater, it’s because Depp’s projected computer-face is a bizarre sight to behold for the better part of two hours. The larger story isn’t exactly designed for cackles, but the entire piece feels like a purely mechanical exercise that’s lacking any heart or soul. The film is the exact opposite of what’s supposed to make the PINN technology so wonderful and revolutionary: ice-cold and exact, without a shred of humanity.

The frigid Transcendence owes much of its temperature to its characters, or lack thereof. Pfister channels the work of Nolan, his colleague and mentor, by populating Transcendence with well-known, recognizable actors in every role. Any traits these characters possess come from the capable performers, not from Jack Paglen’s script. Even then, there’s only so much the actors can do.

Cillian Murphy brings his signature cynicism as a steely-eyed federal agent. Morgan Freeman, cast as Will’s mentor, does what he does best: supply wisdom via monologue. (He’s not the film’s narrator — that’s Bettany’s job — but Freeman nonetheless delivers a monologue about 20 minutes into the movie, for no other apparent reason than, well, that’s what you do when Morgan Freeman is in your movie.) Hall and Bettany do their level best as Will’s loved ones and colleagues, but they have little to play against given Depp’s career-low performance.

Indeed, Depp is the fundamental problem here. Rather than bringing his eccentric energy to an eccentric character, he drifts along downstream, detached and disinterested. Will Caster is a total bore before his transcendence, and he’s only vaguely interesting afterward. Mostly because he can produce $38 million in twenty-four hours and create swirling storms of nanotechnology. But that has nothing to do with the character’s base humanity, or lack thereof.

Depp is charged with bringing a sentient, emotional machine to life, and yet he plays the character as one-dimensionally as humanly possible. He does not get upset. He’s never angry, and never amused. He’s just… there. Depp is a proven talent capable of a wide range of emotion, but he never puts those capabilities to use. It’s a real shame. Transcendence has fundamental issues beyond Depp, but it would have helped if the film’s lead actor actually participated in the movie.

To its credit, Transcendence looks amazing, especially the glimmers of nature — a roaring mountain-view here, stunning stretches of river there. There’s no denying that Pfister can make a good-looking film; as a seasoned director of photography, he’s a master of visual imagery. But he shows no command over the movie otherwise. Like Caster and PINN, Transcendence spirals out of Pfister’s hands, becoming something monstrous instead of something sublime.

Conclusion

Transcendence centers on the intersection between man and machine. It forecasts a future where our digital devices can operate from thinking, feeling actualization. And yet, the film does little in the way of provoking any such thoughts or feelings, thanks to a thin script, thin characters, and a mega-star who simply doesn’t show up. Based on the shallow story, performances, and deadly serious tone, Transcendence answers its own fundamental question: it is not self-aware, and it is not worth your time.

(Images and video © Warner Bros.)

Josh Wigler is a freelance entertainment reporter who has been published by Comic Book Resources, Comics Alliance, Marvel.com, MTV News, New York Magazine's Vulture and more. He lives for film, television, Survivor, pizza, and cats on the internets. Punch and pie.

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