Published on April 19th, 2014 | by Brad


Transcendence – A Film Review

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There won’t be many first-time directors who open with a $100m-budgeted science fiction thriller headlined by the most expensive movie star in the world. Then again, they didn’t spend the previous 12 years as the director of photography for Christopher Nolan, so that’s probably why. Wally Pfister steps into the big chair for Transcendence, based on a screenplay from the Hollywood Black List of 2012. Despite its rather ominous name, The Black List is a selection of the hottest, as-yet unproduced scripts doing the rounds in Hollywood at the time, and previous lists have featured such future award winners as Juno, American Hustle and The King’s Speech.

Coming with a high pedigree both behind the camera and in front of it, with the likes of Johnny Depp, Rebecca Hall, Paul Bettany, Kate Mara, Morgan Freeman, Cillian Murphy and Clifton Collins Jr in the cast, Transcendence has had a lot of hype and high expectations surrounding it. Off the back of a bafflingly poor trailer campaign, in which just about every plot beat has been revealed ahead of time, and a stunningly poor critical reception (the film currently sits at 19% on Rotten Tomatoes at the time of writing), conventional wisdom seems to be that Transcendence is a bit of a turkey. Fortunately, I’ve never been one for taking conventional wisdom as gospel, or listening to critics. I found Transcendence to be a thoroughly enjoyable science fiction thriller, with a collection of very interesting ideas at its heart.

Doing the heavy lifting in front of the camera are Johnny Depp and Rebecca Hall as Will and Evelyn Caster, married computer scientists attempting to create an artificial intelligence. After Will is mortally wounded in a series of coordinated attacks by anti-AI terrorists, Evelyn makes a desperate attempt to “save” his life by scanning his brainwaves to create an AI with Will’s memories, personality and, just possibly, his soul. Hall is reliably good as Evelyn, and it’s nice to see Depp giving an actual performance, rather than the collection of tics and quirks that have comprised the bulk of the Burton and Pirates-dominated last decade and a half of his career. He’s one of the most engaging screen presences out there when he’s on form, and he absolutely nails this. As the third lead, Paul Bettany has an almost thankless role trying to ground the more fantastical elements of what’s happening, as Evelyn pursues her desperate, insane course of action, but he’s more than up to the challenge.

On a technical aspect, it’s not a surprise that Transcendence is a visual spectacle. Pfister has a fantastic eye. Alongside Roger Deakins, he’s been probably the best cinematographer working in Hollywood for a while now. The effects are excellent, particularly in the late-film action sequence in the desert. It’s a scene that stands out anyway, as up until that point, the film is quiet, driven by its characters and ideas rather than any action to speak of. This brief burst of activity is the culmination of what’s been coming over the course of the entire film, and it’s a very good ending. Special mention to Mychael Danna’s score, which is going to be a definite purchase come payday in a couple of weeks.

The central question of Transcendence, that of whether an artificial intelligence can ever truly approximate what it is to be human, is a fascinating one, and one that the film addresses intelligently without ever definitively answering. Certainly, Will seems to have motives, connections to characters, and reactions to external stimuli. But is this a real reaction, or a simulation, like a sociopath pretending to be normal so he can fit in? The film is sensible enough to present both perspectives in a clear, rational manner, and allow us as an audience, to decide. For me, I agree with Bettany’s Max – a machine can never process the logical contradictions inherent in the human heart. Will Caster died. The computer programme was a crude approximation, and its works were abominations.

That a Hollywood studio is willing to commit $100m to a first-time director making a film about complex ideas, and questions about the very nature of what it is to be human, is enormously encouraging. My hope is that the presence of a star of Depp’s magnitude will be enough to get people past the bafflingly poor reviews and into the cinemas, as this is a genuinely good film. Thought-provoking, thrilling and enjoyable, I very highly recommend Transcendence.

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