Monthly Archives: May 2014

Review – Transcendence (12a) [2014]

Transcendence - title banner

Star Rating: 3.5/5

Director:

  • Wally Pfister

Executive Producer:

Cast:

Music Composer:

  • Mychael Danna – Girl,Interrupted, Fracture, Capote, Moneyball, The Captive

In 1948, George Orwell wrote the classic 1984 in which he (implicitly) warned of the dangers of a country using technology to the full to create a totalitarian state. Many of Orwell’s ideas are now part of everyday life. States can monitor an individual’s movements by CCTV surveillance, by their mobile phone activities, by their credit card history, etc… and with a computer database at the tip of the state’s fingers to bring such information when required.

Dr. Will Caster (Johnny Depp) with the swagger of a scientist on the verge of something special, and after his shooting before his consciousness is wired up into the computer.

Left, Dr. Will Caster (Johnny Depp), with the swagger of a scientist on the verge of something special; and, right, sickly after being shot, just prior to his consciousness being wired up to the computer.

The above may be very worrying. But the saving grace is that a person is still needed to activate such technology; for technology cannot operate on its own. However, what if technology could operate on its own? Or, rather, what if a human being’s self-awareness were put into a computer? This is the territory that Wally Pfister’s directorial debut film, Transcendence, deals with.

Will Caster (Johnny Depp) is a scientist intent on creating a conscious computer. His research is at an advanced stage, when he is shot by anti-tech terrorists. With his mind fully functional but his body dying, Evelyn Caster (Rebecca Hall), desperate to save her husband and against the advice of Will’s friend Max (Paul Bettany), uploads Will’s consciousness to a computer to keep him alive.

But as soon as Will’s conscience has been uploaded, the question arises as to whether it really is Will in the computer, or if it is something else, especially as transcendent-Will becomes hungry for power. And with all surveillance systems, the internet, and data-records within his control, as well as the ability to advance at a logarithmic rate, what can stop transcendent-Will bending the world to his will?

Transcendence has a complex yet stimulating plot, almost entirely devoid of (headache inducing) action scenes. The film’s language might be tough to follow (although not a prerequisite, it certainly helps to have some knowledge of computer- and nano-science to understand the dialogue). But the idea of whether a soul, in general, can be uploaded into a computer, and the moral risks of technology (possibly) going too far ensure that viewers can appreciate the movie all the same.

Bree (Kate Mara, older sister of Rooney Mara), one of the anti-tech terrorists behind the shooting of Dr. Will Caster.

Bree (Kate Mara, older sister of Rooney Mara), one of the anti-tech terrorists behind the shooting of Dr. Will Caster.

The idea of technology going too far is not a new one, per se. After-all, Orwell spoke of the matter in 1948, and countless science fiction films, like The Terminator franchise, The Matrix Trilogy, i,Robot, and Prometheus have dealt with the subject since (mostly dragging it through the sewers in the process). Yet, Transcendence handles the subject with maturity, and delivers it in quite an original way. The movie may seem far-fetched at first. But the documentary series Through The Wormhole, narrated by (Transcendence’s and Hollywood’s moral compass) Morgan Freeman, shows us the (disconcerting) capabilities of present-day technology. This, in turn, suggests that what happens in Transcendence is not as implausible as it may ostensibly appear.

But to focus solely on the technological angle of Transcendence would be to miss the point of the film. In a twopart interview, Wally Pfister spoke of how Transcendence is a human story at its core. Due to the film’s mature handling of the subject of artificial intelligence, and due to Paul Bettany’s passionate performance, viewers can understand what the director wanted to convey.

However, Pfister’s casting of Johnny Depp and Rebecca Hall in the lead roles almost loses him the human element of the tale. Depp and Hall have little chemistry between them and neither look like they understand the scientific language they engage with throughout the film. At least, Hall believes in her character and puts effort into her role. Depp, on the other hand, (in a non-Captain Jack Sparrow-like role for a change) looks disinterested and half-asleep throughout the movie.

Depp and Hall might be Transcendence’s most noteworthy problems. But the dialogue is not great either (irrespective of the difficult language used). In addition, parts of the plot are given away daftly, and are contrived, and are unexplained; then again, it should be noted that Inception suffered from similar unexplained-plot problems, so maybe such issues are to be expected when a film deals with inexplicable elements.

FBI agents, Joseph Tagger (Morgan Freeman) and Buchanen (Cillian Murphy) giving Evelyn Caster (Rebecca Hall) sage advice on her husband's transcendence plans.

FBI agents, Joseph Tagger (Morgan Freeman) and Buchanen (Cillian Murphy) giving Evelyn Caster (Rebecca Hall) sage advice on her husband’s transcendence plans.

Nevertheless, like Inception, the cinematography in Transcendence is first-rate. From Transcendence, one can see why Christopher Nolan employed Pfister as his cinematographer for many of his movies, including The Prestige, The Dark Knight I-III, and Inception (in which Pfister won his Oscar). Indeed, if Transcendence’s script and acting would have been as good as its cinematography, Pfister would be in line for a directorial Oscar-nomination in 2015.

Over-all, Transcendence is a brave film for a director to make his debut. It is an interesting and thought-provoking movie, with phenomenal visuals and cinematography. Transcendence has its flaws, not least with its plot, its dialogue and its two lead actors. But to some extent, one should overlook these problems and concentrate on the film’s treatment of the possible dangers of modern day/near-future technology. For, like Orwell in 1948, these matters are handled in an ambitious, innovative and refreshingly adult way.

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