There's some decent high-concept sci-fi in here... somewhere
Brimming with great ideas, impressive cinematography and a stellar cast, it's a shame that high expectations have largely left this sci-fi drama out in the cold, both critically and commercially.Certainly the marketing is an issue, as well as the impossible task of carving out its own little place for itself in the pre-Summer blockbuster market. Transcendence could have been developed and pitched as a great many things - a quality little TV series or even mini-series; or an exceptional indie-scale sci-fi flick which relied more on concepts than effects - but it sits slightly awkwardly as a sub-par blockbuster. Clearly they tried to cash in on the Nolan/Inception crowd, and promote the more visually extravagant moments in the trailer, when indeed these are its weakest elements, smothering and clouding what is actually both quite a thoughtful little sci-fi film and a solid directorial debut, by anyone's standards, from Wally Pfister.Being renowned as Chris Nolan's go-to cinematographer - he worked with him on everything film from The Prestige to The Dark Knight Rises, and won an Oscar for his work on Inception - comes with its downside, as the expectations for a directorial debut are that it be something of Nolan calibre, rather than an accomplishment in its own right. Which is a shame because Transcendence so desperately wants to have its own voice, despite also wanting to conform to said expectations. This conflict is apparent in the scale of both the narrative and the effects sequences, and the timescale in particular seems heavily restricted by the conventional 2-hour film format. Despite all of this though, lower expectations and an open mind should enable you to take away plenty from this competent sci-fi endeavour.
With advances in artificial intelligence technology at their peak, a terrorist group concerned with the potential ramifications for the human race target the leading proponents in the A.I. field. Amidst the casualties is Dr Will Caster who, together with his wife Evelyn, are getting close to crafting a sentient A.I. Seeing it as the only way to keep some part of her husband alive, Evelyn attempts to upload his consciousness into a computer, but struggles to determine whether the end result actually represents Will, or whether it's something far more dangerous.
Perhaps 2014 is the year for good A.I... or perhaps not.
It's certainly nice to see Johnny Depp playing something other than his now-trademark, stoned, drunken loveable idiot, and he reins it in to deliver quite an understated, believable performance as both the human Will, and his intentionally - and expectedly - aloof A.I. counterpart. Rebecca Hall both plays to, and is hobbled by, her strengths, as her character rides an emotional roller coaster made yet more tumultuous due to that aforementioned over-stretched timescale at work in the film.
Supporting them are a couple of other Nolan regulars - Morgan Freeman and Cillian Murphy - who don't get any room to breathe beyond bringing star power to the piece, and the ever-watchable Paul Bettany, whose character perhaps suffers the greatest from the jumping-all-over-the-shop timescale of the narrative.
Indeed it's clear that Pfister's strength lies in the more visual aspects of the filmmaking process, and struggles with both the ambitious scope of the story, which sat on the Hollywood Black List of acclaimed unproduced scripts for years, as well as the expectations of delivering Big Budget set-pieces in a film which simply doesn't need them.
Any sci-fi flick which leaves you with something to think about has got to be doing something right.
The movie is at its best when it's delivering Terminator / Borg / Body Snatchers vibes, and when it's pondering the questions of what makes us who we are, and whether or not there could ever be digital replications of ourselves - whether or not the soul can be uploaded. There's so much damn potential in here - oftentimes playing as the grandstanding Hollywood counterpart to another exceptional indie sci-fi this year, Spike Jonze's Her - that you almost wish that they hadn't tried to cram it all in to a 2-hour movie. But, beyond the arguably unnecessary visual distractions of floating airborne nanobots, you can still see some pure sci-fi concepts on offer here; ideas which will far from disappoint those with an open mind.
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