An important aspect of being a screenwriter is understanding how far to take the subject matter and its themes. Some features could have easily tackled more material, while other pictures bite off way more than they can chew. Transcendence unfortunately fits within the latter category. The main topic here is technology. The world seems to be developing faster and faster with new innovative ways to live our lives. However, how much is too much? This is the question that writer Jack Paglen asks audiences to consider while watching his feature. Transcendence brings up some interesting points, but it fails as a cohesive piece. This motion picture is all over the place and never manages to lump itself back together.
The world is continuing to change, but not everybody is on board with these new advances in technology. Dr. Will Caster (Johnny Depp) has dedicated his life's work to creating a conscious machine that could change how the world operates. However, a radical anti-technology organization fights to prevent him from moving forward with his research. They fear the dangers of him establishing a world where computers can transcend the abilities of the human brain. Caster's life partner, Evelyn (Rebecca Hall), and best friend, Max Waters (Paul Bettany), aid him in making this future a reality.
This is another one of those films about humans trying to play God and being forced to suffer the consequences. However, Will makes an excellent point at a conference when responding to this question of reaching beyond our bounds. He states, "Isn't that what mankind has always done?" This is a good quote that resonated with me through the majority of the film's running time. While Transcendence sports a rather decent set-up, it instantly goes downhill from there. The characters begin to make decisions that make very little sense after what we have just learned about their behavior. Will tells Evelyn to not lose herself in this research. This clearly resonates with her, although she makes a rather quick 180, and feels incredibly strong about it. Not only does this feel out of character, but it's just a way for the film to move itself forward. There are countless other ways that Paglen could have pushed the plot forward without pulling every sense of believability out of the character we'll be following for the majority of the film's duration. Unfortunately, this is only the beginning of the picture's troubles.
Before we even move into the second act of the film, we know exactly where we're headed. This wouldn't necessarily be that big of an issue, although it takes quite a few notes from Invasion of the Body Snatchers, which is guaranteed to get some eyes rolling in the cinemas. At this point, there truly is only one way that this could be played out. Writer Jack Paglen tries to throw us some twists and turns, but none of them will take viewers by surprise. We're ultimately left with a picture that pictures the anti-technology terrorists in a positive light. After they took several innocent lives earlier in the film, it's incredibly difficult to identify with them as protagonists. This new-found technology has the ability to heal people from major injuries, disease, and blindness. This ultimately leads us to a picture that doesn't give much of a real reason to fear this technology. We know that Will has now turned into an evil computer, but it isn't expressed very well. The screenplay is constantly telling us what will happen if they don't stop it, rather than simply showing it.
The further that we get into the film, the more silly it becomes. People begin to believe that they can bring down this ultra-smart network with some lame plans, all while being surrounded by technology that Will could easily tap into. The filmmakers try to make this third act as grand as possible. Even when considering how large of a scale this film is playing on, it really doesn't utilize that to its advantage. Rather, it feels as if it's playing on an unfortunately small scale in the same relative locations. One of the biggest issues remains clear from the beginning of the second act through to when the credits begin rolling. The pacing is absolutely horrendous. This film drags at the speed of a snail, as it tries to juggle character development, plot progression, heavy social commentary, and even some action scenes, all at the same time. Ultimately, it doesn't manage to succeed at any of them.
The best thing about Transcendence is the cast. This will surely be the factor that will draw some audiences into cinema seats. While Johnny Depp doesn't seem very interested in the material through the second half of the film, he's quite captivating through the first half. Before we only see him on large monitors, he handles the character of Dr. Will Caster rather well. Rebecca Hall is surely the strongest asset to the film in the role of Evelyn Caster. While some audiences might become a little agitated with her character, she breathes life into Evelyn to the best of her ability. While this isn't her strongest performance, she still manages to steal every scene that she's featured in. She's always convincing, even when the dialogue takes a turn for the worst. Paul Bettany is decent as Max Waters, even though his character doesn't get as much of a chance to shine. Cillian Murphy is a welcome addition as Agent Buchanan, although Morgan Freeman is too much of a predictable choice to play Joseph Tagger. Even though he's a strong actor, I have difficulty taking him seriously. He plays Morgan Freeman extremely well, but I'd prefer to see more of the dynamics that I know that he has.
Considering the fact that this is the directorial debut from master cinematographer Wally Pfister, it isn't crazy to expect a great sense of visuals. This holds true especially when considering his resumé includes titles such as The Dark Knight and The Prestige. There are most certainly a few interesting shots, although they're few and far apart. Otherwise, this looks like your typical Hollywood feature. There's a lot of CG work, although the majority of it actually looks pretty decent. If you're looking for a strong audio track, then you will be sure to receive that. There is a strong sense of realism here with the high usage of each and every speaker in the cinema.
Perhaps one of the most disappointing aspects of Transcendence is the potential that it once held. There is an interesting premise with crucial social commentary hidden underneath the massive flood of issues. However, it becomes increasingly difficult to see that with this whirlwind of problems. This film seems confused as to whether it wants to be an intense drama with large consequences, or a large-scale science fiction picture. The filmmakers should have chosen one and run with it. The pacing is incredibly slow, making the film feel much longer than it actually is. Rebecca Hall is surely the best aspect of this film, but one strong performance doesn't save an entire movie. Transcendence fails to transcend due to a dull and sloppy execution. Skip it.