Wally Pfister, first-time director of the new film Transcendence, served as director of photography for the majority of Christopher Nolan’s films, including “The Dark Knight Trilogy,” Inception, Insomnia, and Memento. Nolan produced the film, and his influence is readily apparent. Like Inception, particularly, Transcendence is deliberately ambiguous, aiming to make its audience think. That being said, reflecting on it may make the film’s flaws distracting for viewers. The film is definitely worth seeing, but don’t be surprised to find your reaction as ambiguous as the film itself.
Because Pfister comes from the world of cinematography, he’s in love with his own visual images. A few too many “art” shots impede the pace of the story, and several of the same shots are repeated unnecessarily. The flashback technique does not serve the story well. It would have been better to build suspense since the film ends with the exact same scenes anyway, and there was really no reason to know the outcome going in.
If you’ve seen the trailer, you know that Johnny Depp’s character, brilliant scientist Dr. Will Caster, is a dying man. Caster, his wife Evelyn (Rebecca Hall), and their friends/associates Max Waters (Paul Bettany) and Joseph Tagger (Morgan Freeman), have developed a form of artificial intelligence that is self-aware. They’ve managed to upload a monkey’s consciousness into a computer program. When it becomes apparent that Will has only a few months to live, Evelyn and Max decide to try the technology on Will. They reason that they have nothing to lose, and Evelyn cannot bear the thought of life without her beloved.
Opposing them is a group of anti-technology terrorists, the most visible of whom is Bree (Kate Mara). The FBI is trying to take the terrorists down, so Agent Buchanan (Cillian Murphy) becomes an early ally of Evelyn and Max. There will be shifting loyalties during the course of the film, and I’ll leave those for you to discover. I don’t want to give away any more of the story than the opening scenes already have. Needless to say, Will’s uploaded consciousness becomes eerily powerful, presenting a conflict for those who care about him.
Johnny Depp’s more recent portrayals have been quite lackluster, so playing a dying man and then a disembodied computer image suits him. He’s not called on to put much energy into the role, so you won’t be disappointed by him “phoning in” the role as he did in, say, The Tourist and The Rum Diaries. Rebecca Hall, as Evelyn, really carries this film. She provides an indelibly strong woman torn between her love for her husband and the possible problems inherent in her own scientific work and philosophy. A little bit more back story on the Casters’ relationship would have strengthened the plot although you can certainly infer it from her actions after their great experiment.
Paul Bettany, always a reliable performer, does a fine job as Max, who’s also the narrator of the beginning and end of the film. However, his character is limited by a somewhat uneven script. The other characters are all peripheral, and although Cillian Murphy and Morgan Freeman are excellent actors, they just don’t have much to do. Kate Mara’s Bree seems a little too abrasive and dark, a bit of a conflict for the audience since it appears they’re supposed to be able to relate to her cause. Ambiguity strikes again!
All in all, the story line is intriguing, and the possibility of a powerful film is definitely present. I guess the key word here is “possibility” because all the suggested themes – science vs. nature, the nature of human love, the nature of human consciousness, technology vs. humanity – engage the viewer. You’ll leave the film thinking about all of them, but without a satisfying resolution. Still, the visually striking film with Rebecca Hall’s powerhouse performance is worth seeing. - JoAnne Hyde