Transcendence is a new science fiction film from first time director Wally Pfister which stars Johnny Depp, Kate Mara, Morgan Freeman, Rebecca Hall, Paul Bettany and Cillian Murphy. The film follows the concept of Transcendence which is the idea of copying someone’s brain pattern into a computer system so that instead of dying they become a whole new system and they are able to live forever. You don’t die, you transcend.
Transcendence is something that I was excited to see for quite some time as I am a fan of the science fiction genre. But after it finished I found myself wishing the film was able to be more than it was. While you do get some really conceptualized ideas and some interesting concepts to discuss among your friends about transcending, that’s all you really get out of this movie. While the film does come with a strong cast of actors, they play characters that have almost no depth or consistency to their motivations and personalities. The soundtrack within the film does nothing to build what little suspense the audience gets to have and with no great characters to relate to, it left me feeling like this film was just an average experience. Which is a shame really because what it was trying to be could have been so good and I really wanted it to be.
Basically what’s happening in this movie is that Johnny Depp’s character, Will Caster is this sort of computer genius who is well regarded in his field. Will Caster is developing AI (artificial intelligence) and discusses the idea of Transcendence in front of a packed lecture theater. Unfortunately shortly after his presentation Will Caster is shot by a group of terrorists, causing his life to be shortened and leaving him with about 30 days to live. This causes his wife Evelyn Caster (Rebecca Hall) to convince Will to Transcend into the computer, which is what his presentation was about. So they do it and we go from there. The film is actually pretty interesting for the first quarter, it’s only when the rest of the characters get introduced that it seems to lose its way.
You see the main problem here in this film is that it’s trying to make points about Transcendence and the existence of a sort of AI (artificial intelligence) separate to that and above the human race. We see Will Caster (Johnny Depp) transcend into the computer and we see throughout the film what his actions are as this new entity that he is. However we also have the other characters which consist of Joseph Tagger (Morgan Freeman), Agent Buchanan (Cillian Murphy), Max Waters (Paul Bettany) and Bree (Kate Mara). These characters are used as a sort of opposition to the transcendence concept. Bree is the head of terrorist group which is completely against technology and other characters such as the scientist Max Waters (Paul Bettany) are acquaintances of Will Caster but also act as people to argue points for and against Transcendence.
The characters themselves though aren’t really shown to be anything real, they are completely inconsistent throughout the entire film. None of them is relatable at all and at points the film tries to shift backwards and forwards between which are the villains and which is the hero. Although the filmmakers seem to want you to think that Will Caster is the villain most of the time, it does at times make it seem the terrorists are and it switches like this because the film is trying to get you to think about the Transcendence concept. But in doing so, it completely loses its dramatic effect. I couldn’t care less about any of the characters in this movie apart from Will Caster (Johnny Depp) and Evelyn Caster (Rebecca Hall). Characters were repeatedly inconsistent and changed their minds like the flick of a light switch. The smallest of conversations would get a character to shift to a certain side of the argument and it didn’t take much to do it either. I wish I could give clear examples but telling them would ruin some of the film, you just gotta believe me when I say some of the characters just make the worst decisions possible.
The acting in this movie is a little bit mixed as well and I think it may be to do with the actors not really having that great of a script to work with and their characters not really being anything other than props for an argument. Johnny Depp I thought did do well in his role and was actually quite good. He was sort of this very cold unemotional type of character and you didn’t really know what he was thinking at points. This was good in a way as the film kept changing his portrayal, was he a hero or a villain? So by playing the character a little bit mysterious Johnny Depp did well. Rebecca Hall as Evelyn Caster also worked well opposite Johnny Depp and the two had some good scenes together. If the script didn’t have so much attention paid to the concepts and themes and actually spent up more time developing emotional connections and building its characters then it would have been great. I mean the relationship between Evelyn and Will after he transcends is very interesting, but instead we are shown how much technology and servers Will has rather than what was the human side. It’s hard to relate to characters who are portrayed in this way.
Morgan Freeman I found to be the same as he always is in a lot of his recent films, I see no difference between what he did here compared to how he was in The Lego Movie or how he was in The Dark Knight Trilogy, always the same character and the same acting style. Kate Mara was okay, but she didn’t really have much of a script in her terrorist role and I have no idea why the filmmakers changed her hairstyle for every scene she was in. Paul Bettany who played Max Waters the scientist who is friends with Will Caster but then quickly opposes everything is nothing special at all, actually I found Paul Bettany annoying in this movie and I don’t know if it was his fault or the script. The actors didn’t really do poorly, it’s just the characters they played were unrealistic and that made these particular people seem worse than they probably were.
In terms of the directing, for a first attempt from Wally Pfister it’s actually pretty good. The movie is a little bit slow but it does have some good cinematography and some well shot scenes and some interesting effects. I didn’t feel like this movie built up much dramatic suspense. I kept waiting for something great to happen to make me think that this was great. But it never happened. The musical score really did not help and did nothing for many of the scenes, I really just wanted something more.
Where the movie is strong though is in its themes and use of symbolism. Like many science fiction films it tries to present a concept that may happen in the future. Many people do believe that artificial intelligence or copying of a human brain is possible in the future and this film takes a look at that. It has some interesting religious type of themes as well and many christian references and symbols such as resurrection, God and even Max Waters (Paul Bettany) wearing the holy cross in some scenes. When looking at the movie based on its concepts, themes and use of symbolism. Transcendence does have some parts you can discuss with people and analyse which is always good in a film. The issue though is that it makes all of these points so clear to everyone, you can’t possibly miss them.
Overall Transcendence has the right ideas for a science fiction film. It has an interesting concept and might leave a lot of people with something to discuss about the idea of Transcending. But that’s all it has……. and well I guess, Johnny Depp and some other well known cast. While it could have been something great it just didn’t present everything as well as it could have and in the end it came down to poor characterisation and a lot of inconsistency with its characters. It’s not a very hard film to follow, I feel I don’t need a second viewing to understand any parts of it more. If you really want to watch a science fiction film then you could go and see this and be moderately entertained but there may be better things to see in this genre in just a few weeks time, Edge Of Tomorrow perhaps which is something I can’t wait to see. But as for Transcendence it’s got the right ideas and these ideas were all interesting, they just weren’t made relatable in the best way. Better characters and more emotion would have made this film something great.