Just about any project that Christopher Nolan has any attachment to is going to get my attention. And from the first glimpses of the film in the early teasers, Transcendence always felt like a film Nolan would seem right at home making. Instead taking the helm for the first time as director is Wally Pfister. Though this may be his first time in the director’s chair, Pfister is no stranger to working on pictures of large scale; after all, he’s been Nolan’s director of photography since Memento back in 2000. So how does Pfister do with his first at bat? Well, it could be a lot worse…
The film opens up in the not-too-distant future where technology has become a thing of the past. Man is now forced to go on with their lives without the use of computers, and the relics of technology are nothing more than doorstops. But what could have happened to make this world technology-free? Well, to answer that the film jumps back five years, and that is where the story begins.
Doctor Will Caster (Johnny Depp) is a technology genius who has brought the world advances that remind me of a more cool and confident Steve Jobs or Bill Gates. Caster and his team seem to be on the brink on a scientific creation that will take artificial intelligence to a higher state. But there is an anti-technology group that plans to prevent Caster’s latest achievement from coming to completion by staging attacks on numerous labs and even attacking Caster as well.
Casters wife, Evelyn (Rebecca Hall) is now faced with the looming death of her husband, but she has found a way to preserve her husband’s life as well as continuing his research by joining his mind to the program that Will has created. This portion of the film was really the only part that worked for me. Anyone who has lost a dear one can relate to Evelyn and support her decision to try and hold onto her husband with every shred of hope at her fingertips. But as the film plays on and as Caster’s thoughts and memories run through the program, as the program becomes smarter, how much really is her husband and how much is simply the constantly evolving machine?
As the film jumps ahead two years, I feel it left me behind. The human story about the wife’s attachment to her husband and not wanting to let go is ruined the moment we are no longer with them together and she is on the run from the anti-technology group. Where last year we saw how a relationship between man and machine can develop in the film Her, we see Evelyn try the same thing with her late husband, only Transcendence never hits the emotional notes as well as Her. The film instead indulges on glimpses into the near future with the use of nanotechnology and the possibilities it can bring. Visually these bits are fun to see, but there is nothing that sticks with me after the credits have passed.
The side story of Caster’s friend Max (Paul Bettany) being taken by the leader of the anti-technology group, Bree (Kate Mara) simply just doesn’t deliver as well as it may have on paper. Where clearly Max simply cares for Evelyn and is conflicted with his loyalty to his friend Max, instead of dealing with the emotions of this triangle the filmmakers simply waste time showing Max as a captive who really doesn’t seemed too concerned with his position. As for Morgan Freeman and Cillian Murphy, well, they at least put forth the effort with making their scenes shine as their characters are trying to piece together what is happening between Caster and the anti-technology group, but at times it’s as though they don’t even know what their characters are really doing here.
Where things get murky for me is where exactly the anti-technology group and Caster swap places as being protagonists and antagonists. What sides are we supposed to be on? The anti-technology group basically is a terrorist organization that has killed dozens of people, yet the program that is Caster seems to want to only help people and heal them and make them better. Sure later in the film things are set in motion to make it clear who is “bad” and who is “good”, but the logic where this is all coming from just doesn’t hold up for me, nor did it seem to hold up for the audience we viewed this with. Even more frustrating are the final few scenes where the film seems to shift directions and get a little too on-the-nose preachy for my taste. Sure, every filmmaker has a right to make a film about their stance on certain issues, but not every audience member is going to be so willing to have the message shoved down their throat.
I had high hopes for this film. I hoped we’d have a film that would create discussion and achieve the fanfare of Inception, but instead I find myself wanting to control-alt-delete the experience and simply wipe the film from my memory bank.