This weekend, longtime cinematographer Wally Pfister makes his directorial debut with the science fiction mystery thriller "Transcendence." This film explores the concept of creating an advanced system that has greater-than-human intelligence with the ability to think and feel. The film further examines the unpredictability and consequences associated with unknown technology such as this. Featuring a quality cast of Johnny Depp, Rebecca Hall, Paul Bettany, Morgan Freeman, Kate Mara, and more, "Transcendence" is a captivating, scientific, advanced tech-thriller that falls short of its potential due to lack of explanation, illogical nature, and missing pieces. It looks great and is worth watching, but ultimately it’s not put together very well.
"Transcendence" is basically a life-or-death battle between radical groups, as it places extremist technology researchers against violent anti-tech terrorists. Dr. Will Caster (Depp), Evelyn Caster (Hall), and Max Waters (Bettany) are trying to make the world a better place and save lives by advancing technology in science and medicine, while Joel Edmund (Cory Hardrict), Bree (Mara), and other members of RIFT, an organization against technology, murder tech personnel and destroy research facilities. Almost right after the movie begins, the terrorists attack Dr. Caster, which forces him to accelerate a project that involves trying to merge a human or animal brain with a computer system to achieve “transcendence.” This is where the film really gets interesting and bizarre as Caster successfully uploads his own mind and consciousness, allowing him to connect with the Internet, absorb massive amounts of information, answer questions about curing diseases, manipulate the environment, and much more.
While not a traditional mystery in any sense, everyone in the story (as well as the audience) must decide whether or not the computer system really is Will Caster, or if it is a close imitation that is unpredictable and may eventually grow out of control. At times, the film feels like a horror movie through the use of varied music, attacks or confrontational encounters, and things happening suddenly when a character is alone or vulnerable.
Coming from an established, veteran cinematographer and director of photography who has worked on "Inception," the recent "Dark Knight" Batman trilogy, "The Italian Job," "Moneyball" and more, I had high hopes that "Transcendence" would have above-average visuals. To my surprise, I found ordinary (comparably), albeit acceptable in terms of its visual makeup. Like many sci-fi fantasy films, the presentation usually does a good job of merging fictional, yet mesmerizing, images and settings with real life, and for the most part, this movie is no different.
Don’t get me wrong; I did enjoy this film. My main thought towards negativity is based upon my original expectations. With a background like Pfister’s, I expected "Transcendence" as a whole to be close to the same level as his previous films. Instead, it falls short in several ways, in large part due to lack of information, explanation, or logistics of how everything works.
Why does the government, authorities, or general public not seem to have a bigger presence or awareness of what is going on? What are the terrorists’ reasons for their actions? Why are certain characters making certain choices, and how are they getting away with it? How does all of the technology work? Why are characters popping in and out of the spotlight, sometimes existing for no reason at all? Why does it seem like the events that happen are less-than-impressive? The movie often raises questions faster than it can answer them.
It’s as if the people behind this film spent most of their time and resources on big names and special effects and threw other key components together expecting a decent product. Better yet, "Transcendence" tricks you into thinking it’s so smart that there’s an excuse for lacking certain pieces –- like maybe the audience is just missing something.
Additionally, the sense of time is somewhat odd, as the film starts out in the future, then flashes back, and continually skips ahead inordinate amounts of time throughout. Bottom line, there was something missing and off about parts of this film.
But that doesn’t mean it has nothing to offer. This is one of those films that has a very fascinating story and mind-bending content, which is executed by proven actors. It features ideas and innovations that most people don’t fully understand. It involves a great deal of science and technology, and as we’ve seen time and time again in real life and in movies such as this, unknown and unmonitored advancements can be dangerous in certain circumstances. People are sometimes fearful of what they don’t know and don’t understand, and although technical advancements and possibilities can be beneficial in many ways, they need to be carefully observed, tested, and restrained if necessary.
"Transcendence" is worth seeing for an average moviegoer, sci-fi/fantasy buff, or anyone looking for something that stretches reality. This film challenges you to expand your mind and think about the endless possibilities technology can provide, for good and bad. Though it's not quite to the level of quality of Wally Pfister's other work, I’m anxious to see what else he can do behind the director’s chair.
Rated 3 out of 5 stars.
"Transcendence" is rated PG-13 for sci-fi action and violence, some blood images, brief strong language and sensuality. Running time is 1 hour and 59 minutes.
Hayden Pittman is a special contributor to WFAA.com and a freelance film critic and entertainment blogger out of Dallas. More of his content can be found on YouPlusDallas.com and his author archive here. He is a film, TV, and sports enthusiast, and hopes to pursue a future in filmmaking and screenwriting. As an average, passionate film lover who rarely misses a film, his reviews are straightforward and his way with words will let you know in a simple way what he thinks. Don’t like what he has to say? Let him know at email@example.com or follow him on Twitter at @HPMoviePitt.