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Overall Rating

Awesome: 8.33%
Worth A Look: 0%
Average: 25%
Pretty Bad37.5%
Total Crap: 29.17%

3 reviews, 6 user ratings

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by Brett Gallman

"A frustrating but intriguing debut for Wally Pfister."
3 stars

"Transcendence" looks to be hung up on big ideas, but it's less a ponderous thesis and more of a good keynote address: it's flashy, attention-grabbing, full of cliches, and is sold on musings and promises, some of which it actually manages to deliver on. Most of them, however, merely serve as a platform for another technophobic vision of the apocalypse, so Wally Pfister's directorial debut is but one of many prophets shouting in a crowded landscape.

Its doom and gloom is immediately established with a bleak opening that essentially wallows in outmoded Y2K paranoia: at some point in the future, as Max Waters (Paul Bettany) wanders a desolate town and reveals that the world has been crippled by a worldwide internet outage. In a flashback (a structure that robs the film of much of its drama), he begins to reflect on events from five years earlier, when his colleague Will Caster (Johnny Depp) was on the verge of achieving the singularity (or "transcendence"). His work is cut short by a group of Luddite terrorists, whose assassination attempt leaves him with a poisoned bloodstream. With only a month to live, Will becomes the subject of one of his own experiments when his wife, Evelyn (Rebecca Hall), successfully transfers his consciousness onto a hard drive.

Just as "Transcendence" wrestles with Big Questions, I've also wrestled with the film itself in an attempt to figure out if it's actually challenging or just frustrating. At first blush, I'm tempted to go with the latter, mostly due to Jack Paglen's muddled, confused script. That it shuffles modes (it morphs from a lovers-on-the-run thriller into an ominous sci-fi flick in a hurry), isn't all that disorienting--in fact, you can almost feel the film sorting itself out, not unlike Will himself once he finds himself uploaded into cyberspace. More disconcerting is the script's inability to pick a side in the eventual conflict between the Luddites and the Casters and its refusal to clarify its various condemnations.

Rather than flirt with ambiguity, "Transcendence" is just plain old thematically confused and shifts its loyalties from one scene to the next. One minute, it's damning the terrorist organization; the next, they're presented as mankind's only hope and are forming a ragtag alliance with the government (headed up by Cillian Murphy's FBI agent and Morgan Freeman's ever dignified scientific consultant). Meanwhile, Will Caster fluctuates between well-meaning messiah and a sinister harbinger looking to form a hive mind out of the entire planet.

When the two sides clash, it's even more confusing: on the one hand, the army looks like a bunch of underhanded assholes by sneak-attacking what is essentially a pretty peaceful commune/server farm. But, on the other, a potential zombie hive-mind is probably some DEFCON-level shit that needs tending to (nevermind the fact that the eventual clash winds up being a relatively small scuffle in the outskirts of a desert ghost town--what is this, "Thor?").

Perhaps Pfister and company mean to plumb the murky, post-9/11 depths that have clouded the traditional line between heroes and villains, but "Transcendence" feels too nonsensical and pulpy to engage them and decides to scrounge up a big action set-piece out of obligation to the genre. Eventually, it's not interested in engaging much of anything and just decides to blow everything up because why the hell not? Artificial life gaining sentience demands this sort of thing, right? "Transcendence" winds up the louder, more boorish "Him" to the quieter, thoughtful "Her."

What's frustrating is that "Transcendence" isn't completely empty-headed and requires a little bit of unpacking--which is to say, at least it has something to unpack. I'm not quite sure its contents add up to much, but religious imagery and motifs are scattered throughout: Will becomes a Christ figure, right down to the persecution and the miracles (he curse the blind, heals the sick, resurrects, etc.), while he and Evelyn are something of a modern Adam and Eve, complete with a garden sanctuary. Unplugging the internet has the effect of knocking the world back to the Stone Age, thus making it the digital equivalent of The Flood (and you thought "Noah" was going to be the only screwy Genesis retelling this year).

Finding coherence in all of this is difficult, particularly because you can't tell if Will actually is a benevolent messiah. Likewise, Evelyn is either an unreasonably selfish, oblivious woman or a victim of a tragic love story. The entire story carries an inevitable air of doom because it assumes that its subject matter demands it, as if all science fiction stories of this ilk are tainted with the DNA of "Frankenstein" and must solemnly intone against playing god. What I suppose qualifies as a late "twist" turns the story on its head and repositions the Casters as the Monster and his Bride: two tortured, misunderstood souls who belong dead. The film is so indecisive that it induces whiplash.

You want to believe it all means something, especially coming from Pfister, a talent who has aligned himself with Christopher Nolan, who serves as executive producer here. Expectations by association are probably unfair, though, and Pfister is saddled with a problematic script. Having served as Nolan's cinematographer, Pfister has first-hand experience in watching a director outrun awkward screenplays, but, if "Transcendence" is any indication, he didn't take enough notes. Compared to Nolan's films, which are usually propulsive, thunderous exercises in storytelling, "Transcendence" is a meticulously mounted but sometimes leaden production.

Jess Hall's photography is an extension of Pfister's naturalistic style, and the film somehow feels important, particularly when it includes showy, handheld shots of detritus to remind audiences that they're plodding towards apocalyptic doom. Pfister does at least match Nolan's ability to integrate fantastic effects with an otherwise ordinary world, though his most interesting images are often found in the bowels of the Casters' subterranean abode, a sleek, eerie collection of endless corridors and glowing servers that emphasize Will's infinite space and existence. Technology lords over the film, and Pfister's long shots reduce its human characters to infinitesimal proportions in the landscapes.

This will sound cliche as hell, but "Transcendence" is a robotic film that rarely captures that human element otherwise. It's a replication of a film seemingly put on by an automaton that's been fed data for this genre. Even its impressive cast of performers fails to inject much life into things: Bettany and Freeman are dignified enough to almost convince you that they're inhabiting well-rounded characters, and I think it's impossible not to like Rebecca Hall on some level, even when she's stuck playing second fiddle to cyber Jesus.

Speaking of which, Depp is a disappointment here; he's somehow evolved into a character actor who has made himself the character--he's always just playing some form of oddball Johnny Depp, which is a real shame here. Wouldn't have been nice to finally get regular old, boyish Johnny Depp back for a spell before allowing him to transform into a soulless ghost in the machine?

"Transcendence" is a film I really want to like (and I suppose I do like it a little bit) because it's a throwback to the technophobic terrors of the 70s, especially. Even in 2014, it's a valid fear to explore because, stuff like the recent Heartbleed bug exposes just how much of our lives can be exploited online, a notion that quite frankly scares the shit out of me. The problem with "Transcendence" is that it can't decide just how scary our dependence is--hell, there are times when it seems to highlight the wonderful possibilities of our technological advances. And, yet, it finds a certain grace and comfort in its post-apocalyptic landscape, as if cutting the cord is could absolve us of our sins.

Ultimately, it feels indifferent or uneasy about the questions it raises, so it shrugs them off and indulges in spectacle, making it more of a diversion than an outright screed. There's a repeated exchange in the film that centers on our inability to prove our self-awareness. "Transcendence" itself is proof of that--it shows signs of life, but it feels too guided by the voices and echoes of what came before it.

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originally posted: 04/20/14 08:18:05
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User Comments

12/08/15 brian Ummm.......huh? 2 stars
7/31/15 Bents made very little sense...was not compelling 2 stars
8/28/14 reptilesni ZZZzzzzzZZZZZzzzzzZZzzzz 1 stars
5/04/14 Shhgulzj Person #3: Do not worry though; the texture will be saved each year. Based on what I did., 5 stars
4/20/14 kuldeep Dhull wat hapnig all 5 stars
4/20/14 kuldeep Dhull I'm actor and not actor 2 stars
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  18-Apr-2014 (PG-13)
  DVD: 22-Jul-2014


  DVD: 22-Jul-2014

Directed by
  Wally Pfister

Written by
  Jack Paglen

  Johnny Depp
  Kate Mara
  Morgan Freeman
  Rebecca Hall
  Cillian Murphy
  Paul Bettany

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