Great sci-fi films have the ability to tap into very real issues that potentially face mankind in the future. Artificial Intelligence is nothing new to cinema, dating back as far as Fritz Lang’s 1927 Metropolis and then cemented through such icons of the genre as 2001: A Space Odyssey, Blade Runner and The Terminator films. Terminator in particular is of relevance as at times Transcendence could easily be viewed as a prequel to James Cameron’s film with Skynet seen here as a kind of Sky-Depp.
Will Caster (Johnny Depp) is a celebrated Steve Jobs like technological genius. Aided by his wife and colleague Evelyn (Rebecca Hall) he believes that in years to come artificial intelligence will have gained such knowledge as to over-take mankind as the most intelligent being on the planet. But when Will is shot with an irradiated bullet by an anti-technology terrorist faction Evelyn and friend Max (Paul Bettany) decide to upload Will’s consciousness to a computer. Before long Sky-Depp has gone online and developed nanotechnology the likes of which the world has never seen. But is Sky-Depp becoming too powerful? The government, guided by Will’s former boss Joseph (Morgan Freeman), certainly think so as he manipulates the stock market and puts mankind in great danger.
Cinematographer turned director Wally Pfister has for many years been Christopher Nolan’s go-to man for all his visuals. Like his mentor Nolan, Pfister is clearly drawn to big ideas, the kind that make the audience engage with the story in a much larger way than mere entertainment.
There are plenty of fascinating concepts going on in Transcendence. On the one hand it’s an obvious Frankenstein parable that soon inherits a Beauty And The Beast theme with Evelyn growing increasingly scared of Will’s power, a kind of Sleeping With The Internet. But it’s in the idea that technology could become godly in its power to change the world that Transcendence genuinely captures the imagination.
But juggling this many ideas means that Transcendence begins to buckle under the weight of its own ambition. As such it rapidly descends into a series of predictable set-pieces that never really tap into the key ideas. The ending goes some way towards rectifying this but between a clunky voice-over and some plot points that go beyond what the audience are likely to accept in the created reality of this world, makes Transcendence a promising but ultimately frustrating affair.
Johnny Depp thankfully forgoes his now regular shtick of quirky eccentric and, while Will is in mortal form, brings a likeable quality to the role. Once he’s become the omnipotent presence though, and perhaps fairly, he resorts to a more robotic performance that contradicts much of the aim the film is trying to shoot for. Bettany and Freeman feel slightly under-used but both bring a nice level of gravitas to proceedings. Rebecca Hall meanwhile carries the film on her able shoulders, radiant in her ability to play both villain and damsel in distress. If anything her character feels underwritten so it’s to Hall’s credit that much of the film works when she’s on screen.
Too many big ideas mean that Transcendence fails to rise to that which it aspires but is nonetheless a film much more interesting than the bulk of most mainstream big budget enterprises.