Director: Wally Pfister
Starring: Johnny Depp, Rebecca Hall, Paul Bettany, Morgan Freeman
The first time I saw the trailer I was iffy about Transcendence. The second time I saw the trailer I was pretty sure it would be bad. It's not that the parts that make up the film are awful. I love sci-fi, and the A.I. storyline is very interesting. Johnny Depp is an amazing actor, as is Morgan Freeman. Paul Bettany is always strong, and I was curious to watch Rebecca Hall. No, the problem wasn't the actors or the plot or even the director, who would be making his debut. The thing that concerned me was the flow of the film. I know it's just a trailer, but I could already see signs of a disjointed story, of an overworked idea, of great actors left unchallenged and therefor unmotivated. Johnny Depp has fallen victim to that before, hired for his name alone and not asked to flex his acting muscles. When that happens to good actors they phone in their performances, which is exactly what happened here. There's nothing wrong with the pieces of the puzzle, but the finished project wasn't put together correctly, creating a film that I'd love to love but can't even begin to like.
The future of human existence is in the capable hands of three well-known scientists in this dramatic sci-fi thriller. Will Caster is the leader of his field, creating a super-computer that can almost think for itself. His wife, Evelyn, is a genius in her own right, focusing on how artificial intelligence could save Earth. And lastly, their friend Max Waters, a scientist and philosopher who understands the dangers that a self-aware non-human could pose to humanity. The three are on the verge of a technological breakthrough when Will is shot by a member of a radical terrorist organization bend on destroying his work. With only weeks to live, he and his team race to upload his thoughts, memories, and brain waves into the super-computer, essentially keeping him alive though his body has died. But when he begins to ask for more power, for more connections, for total autonomy, Max begins to question just what they have done. Evelyn is just happy that Will is "alive" and will fight to keep him that way, leading to a struggle that will decide the fate of the planet.
Transcendence was really a movie in three parts. The first third of the film was everything you've already seen in the trailer: the idea of artificial intelligence, Johnny Depp getting shot, his wife unable to let him go, his "spirit" uploaded into a computer. That part was pretty cool, but we knew it was coming. The second third of the movie was about the development of Will Caster's self-aware second self. This was by far the best forty minutes of the film. It was really fascinating, the scope of what a computer that powerful could do if we could just produce it, the imagination that went into creating these ideas and possibilities. But then the last third came and that was all left behind. There were over-dramatic scenes, nonsensical battles, people chasing each other through the desert, and the story disintegrated into a silly muddle. Anything that was built earlier was abandoned and the only thing that seemed to matter was CGI, which actually wasn't even that impressive.
The movie had great actors who were more than capable of saving a dying plot line, they just didn't do it. They were only half present, only kind of trying to convince us that they cared. Johnny Depp was horrible as Will Caster. I never believed him for a moment and he literally could have played most of his part via webcam. Morgan Freeman was just there because he draws an audience; he probably drove by the set and filled in just for fun. Rebecca Hall wasn't much better, but at least she seemed like she was trying. And last but definitely best, Paul Bettany was the highlight of the film as the conscientious scientist. Had he not been in it to at least salvage a couple scenes I'm not sure what would have happened. As it was, Transcendence was a throw-away film. It had a neat base and some great actors, but failed to use any of that to its advantage. Maybe some of the blame goes to Pfister as an amateur, but it's hard to pin it all on the director when the cast was obviously not giving their all. A disappointing way to spend two hours and not something I'd recommend.