Review by-Jarrett Leahy
Dr. Will Castor is one of the top experts in the expanding field of artificial intelligence and is on the cusp of creating a fully conscious, cognizant machine with ability to understand and express a full range of human emotions. His scientific success has raised dire concerns with R.I.F.T., a group of anti-technology radicals who fear the unforeseen consequences of his research and will stop at nothing to prevent him from succeeding. When R.I.F.T. executes a highly systematized and coordinated attack on the A.I. community, Dr. Castor’s life is put in jeopardy. Castor’s wife, Evelyn, and research partner, Max Waters, believe the only way to save Will is through transcendence, the uploading of his consciousness. Without the restraints of the physical world, Will is able to quickly acquire vast amounts of information, evolving far beyond anything ever imagined. But when his thirst for knowledge expands into a pursuit for power, it becomes alarmingly apparent that there may be no way to stop him.
After an extremely successful career as the director of photography for filmmaker Christopher Nolan that included four Oscar nominations and an Academy award for his cinematography work on The Dark Knight, Wally Pfister makes his directorial debut with Transcendence. As I’m sure Pfister learned first-hand, regardless of how complicatedly elaborate Nolan’s stories were (i.e. Memento, Inception, The Prestige), the driving forces to their success were accomplished screenplays free of overtly glaring plot holes. Story inconsistencies or illogical gaps can sink a movie even faster than inferior performances. And it is in these dreaded illogical gaps where we find the biggest issues with Transcendence.
Initial red flags were raised when little explanation was given as to how exactly the process of Transcendence actually works. Sensors were surgically attached, “data” was uploaded and collected, and miraculously it worked. If that was the film’s biggest quandary, we’d be in business for a solid thriller. However, that was just the beginning. Issues arose when the new digital Dr. Castor was allowed to create this technological oasis in the middle of the desert without any interference from government officials of any kind. Puzzled, I distinctly remember asking myself, “How is this going on unchecked? Where exactly did all the materials needed for this project come from? And how could a facility so complex and sophisticated be created in such a short time frame?” I also had major contention with the scale of the forces used in the attempt to disarm Dr. Castor. Loyalties inexplicably shift in a blink, and if this impregnable, highly intelligent artificial being is such a global threat, shouldn’t a far larger and unified response have been unleashed than what was eventually deployed for the mission?
Frustrations were also found in the distressing prevalence of unexceptional, run-of-the-mill performances that were given by what most would consider an exceptional group of actors who certainly aren’t known for mediocrity. Front and center is Johnny Depp’s wooden depiction of Dr. Castor. Perhaps he was attempting to portray the cold, unemotional delivery of a non-human intelligence, but what came across instead was a dispassionate and detached performance that almost looked as if he were sedated. It also pains me to concede that I’ve never been more disappointed with Morgan Freeman and Paul Bettany, who both appear to be going through the motions on screen.
While the film itself is disappointingly lacking, my appreciation for it lies in the thoughts and questions I found myself asking while watching it. Examining the notes I scribbled down in the dark, I found these reflections and questions. Seeing how rapidly technology has expanded in the last decade, how close are we actually to an omnipresent artificial intelligence? If we are heading down this path and researchers begin to experience similar difficulties, would they have the courage to pull the plug on years of research, or would their egos be the eventual demise of our society? The film examines ideas about healing the damage we’ve caused to our planet, and as destructive as we are as a species, would this type of symbiotic system Dr. Castor’s digital self was trying to construct be a solution for our future survival? Transcendence is going to be looked at as the first box-office bomb of 2014. But if a film can conjure such philosophical questions as these, can it be considered a true failure?
After the film let out, Jason asked me what I thought of it. The only response I could come up with was, “It’s a thought-provoking pile of mediocre.” Transcendence rolled out the red carpet with the big ad campaign and A-list cast to help masquerade the film’s two glaringly obvious flaws, a first-time director working with a flawed script from a first-time writer. Overall, my best designation for Transcendence is it’s a fascinating failure.-JL