So “Transcendence”… happened. I don’t regret having seen it, if only for the joy of seeing it in an empty theater with some friends and co-workers, thus being granted the freedom of unmitigated riffing. To put it sweetly, it’s not very good at all. The techno-thriller attempts to shed light on some rather tired themes (most emphatically the dangers of technological advancement) with yet another modernized variation of the Frankenstein allegory. Award winning Cinematographer Wally Pfister, famous for having worked with Christopher Nolan on The Dark Knight Trilogy and Inception, makes his debut as a director. If Transcendence is any indication, then despite his proficiency with framing/lighting/ tracking ect, he has a lot to learn about the mechanics of translating a cohesive story to the screen and drawing compelling performances out of actors.
Johnny Depp plays Jeff Goldblum from Independence Day (you’ll know it when you see it) and quite literally phones it in (he spends about 75% of the movie on a computer screen). For his little time on camera as a physical entity Depp plays the trite “quirky scientist who doesn’t want to work for the man.” Rebecca Hall does her best as the distraught wife and Frankenstein archetype for the story (after her husband’s death she upload his consciousness to a computer kick-starting the dull, flaccid proceedings). Paul Bettany tries his darnedest to put in a good performance (despite disappearing for long stretches of time, held captive by and eventually joining Kate Mara and her Luddite terrorist cell). Cillian Murphy shows up for about five collective minutes as an FBI agent investigating whatever the plot demands he be investigating at the moment, and does an adequate job given the material. I’m still unsure as to why Morgan Freeman was in this movie. He kind of just hangs out with Cillian Murphey while things get investigated and exposits whatever vague messages this movie was trying to convey.
The main problems with this movie stem from the script and the inexperienced directors inability to transcend (oh yeah, that happened) the shortcomings of said script. The story plods along with weak, poorly defined characters. The science fiction elements are not contextualized by anything in the story, making the more fantastical things that happen here feel really out of place. For example, the cause of Johnny Depp’s death: after delivering a speech at a convention about artificial intelligence, an assassination attempt is made on him by the aforementioned Luddite group. They shoot him with a radioactive bullet that puts him in the hospital and gives him cancer, killing him in the span of a month. This creative decision just baffles me. He needs to die for the story to advance, audiences will understand this….but a cancer bullet? You couldn’t just have him get shot and die? Or get poisoned? Or just simply die of cancer and forgo the silly Luddite thing? And this is about fifteen-twenty minutes into the movie…well at least they prepare us for what’s to come ahead of time.
The movie is peppered with unintentionally silly little touches like this, despite it’s heart attack-serious tone. My god, does his film take itself seriously. The air of self-importance is stifling from the first few minutes, even though the oh-so-deep themes being explored really aren’t anything new. Couple this with characters who range from cliche to two-dimensional to downright unlikable and this movie, under ordinary viewing circumstances, could be quite a chore to stomach for it’s two hour run time. But at least I had a blast, despite the film’s best efforts.