Of all the things I have to say about Transcendence, I’ll open with this: for the majority of its two-hour running time, I was not bored. I was not necessarily excited, thrilled, or having fun, but I was also not wishing it would end, or feeling the need to check a clock. It might just be intriguing and ambitious enough to be worth your time, even if it often fails to capitalize on those factors or even make a whole lot of sense.
The most curious choice that first-time cinematographer-turned-director Wally Pfister makes is in the opening, which is set a few years after most of Transcendence’s action. We begin with Paul Bettany walking around a semi-apocalypse, claiming that almost all electricity has been wiped out. Keyboards are being used as doorstops. Our heroes (or villains, or both) are dead. The majority of the story is told in a flashback. We know how it ends, and that rids it of much of its potential tension. No more than a few minutes in, we know the fate of both the planet and our central characters.
No matter. We’re soon taken five years back in time to follow Will Caster (Johnny Depp) and his wife, Evelyn (Rebecca Hall), who are wonderfully intelligent scientists on the verge of a breakthrough. Will believes that it’s entirely possible to transfer a human consciousness into a computer, and in doing so creating something smarter than all the previously born humans combined. Soon after giving a speech in front of colleagues, he’s shot with a bullet filled with radiation poisoning by an anti-A.I. terrorist group known as RIFT and is given a month to live. Guess what happens.
It’s not his choice to have his mind uploaded into a computer. Evelyn makes that decision, much to the chagrin of Will’s best friend — and also brilliant scientist, because of course he is — Max (Bettany). It’s a success. Will is inside the computer. But is it really Will, or just a copy? Or something that looks like him? Is this A.I. good for humanity, or will it be our downfall, like RIFT suggests? Max wants to shut it down, but Evelyn is so happy just to have her husband back. She kicks Max out and begins to do whatever Will wants, including plugging him into the internet so that he can live in the cloud and be with her forever and always.
A montage and two years later, and Will and Evelyn have created the most scientific lab imagined. Will has developed nanotechnology that can heal any wound, while also making things like limbs and muscles several times smaller. Oh, and the people he fixes are able to be controlled by him at any time, but no biggie, right? Will continues to grow in knowledge and power — we’re told by RIFT and Max, whom RIFT captured — and Evelyn blindly does whatever he says, because women, am I right? (I’m only kind of joking that this is how the film portrays this.)
It’s at this point Transcendence becomes far more of a mess than it ideally would. Too many characters are introduced and have nothing to do, their motivations become a complete question mark — they often “switch sides” without much, or any, reason — and we meander slowly along to the conclusion, which wouldn’t feel so bad if we didn’t know how it had to go down. There’s an attempt to generate suspense here, but it doesn’t work because of the way the story is being told.
There are also more than a couple of moments when you’ll wonder exactly how something is working, or how we got to a specific point. A magical “virus” is introduced at the end, which basically just provides a convenient way to wrap everything up, for example. The entire ending — of the story before the “present,” anyway — is a jumbled disaster.
Science fiction films often attract a very critical and scrupulous crowd, and if you’re one of those types of people, I don’t think you’re going to enjoy Transcendence a whole lot, unless you’re also someone who enjoys finding all of the inaccuracies and implausibilities in someone’s work, because this is a film rife with opportunities for that. It’s not a particularly intelligent movie — even if it had some smart concepts — although it certainly wants to present itself as such. I know some people hate that. You’ve been warned.
Good actors are wasted in this movie. Johnny Depp is extremely low-key, spending most of the film on a computer screen and talking in a monotone voice with an unflinching and barely moving face. Rebecca Hall is supposed to be the core of the film but has such an underwritten role that she can’t do much with it — not to mention the way the film often looks down, intentionally or not, at any shred of emotion her character produces. Morgan Freeman and Cillian Murphy are non-entities. Kate Mara and Paul Bettany are barely noticeable.
There are an immense amount of problems with Transcendence. They begin at the first scene and carry out through the film. The storytelling method hampers any attempt at generating suspense. The plot itself is often confusing and leaves the characters undeveloped and with muddled motivations. The talented actors get nothing much to do. But it’s never boring. Is it worth seeing? Only to kill a couple of hours at home when you don’t want to get invested in something but also don’t want to do anything else. No, that’s not a recommendation. But the time will pass. That’s about all I can give it.