Review: ‘Transcendence’ Never Quite Hits Its Mark

It’s no mistake that the spirit of Christopher Nolan feels present throughout Transcendence. Not only is Nolan a producer, it’s also directed by Wally Pfister, Nolan’s longtime cinematographer. But unfortunately its beautiful and moody exterior covers an ultimately substance-less thriller, a cinematic merengue.

Pfister certainly knows how to dress up a film, using the repeated motif of dripping water as a symbol (though it’s never exactly clear for what), but all the beautiful cinematography in the world can’t hide the fact that Transcendence is never quite as smart as it thinks it is. At its heart, Transcendence is a cheesy thriller, but it never really allows itself to be any fun.

The world of Transcendence is populated with the type of computer whizzes who’ve become rockstars in our world of startups and keynote addresses. Johnny Depp and Rebecca Hall play Dr. Will and Evelyn Caster, as she says, partners in work and in life, developing a machine that possesses sentience and self-awareness. Their friends, played by Paul Bettany and Morgan Freeman, are also researchers. And there are the terrorists, because aren’t there always? The pretty young things, lead by Kate Mara’s Bree, are concerned about the repercussions of creating a machine that can think and operate on its own so they coordinate a series of simultaneous attacks that result, eventually, in Will Caster’s death by radiation poisoning.

Blinded by grief, Evelyn, with the help of a skeptical Max (Bettany), uses Will’s final days to upload Will’s consciousness to a computer. And herein lies the first problem: Transcendence never concerns itself with explaining its science, rather decade-long problems are solved in the nick of time with the press of a button (strange no one thought to think of this before!) and the plot moves forward. Obviously the science behind this technology cannot be explained because it’s not (yet) possible, but each time a breakthrough is made, the vagueness of the dialogue serves to remind that this is less Inception and more Face/Off without all the fun that makes the latter film so extraordinarily watchable.

Anyway, Evelyn succeeds and soon her husband has been uploaded to the internet, becoming a sort of omnipresent, all-knowing figure–a man-made god, as the film not-so-subtly reminds us, more than once. We already know that nothing good will come of this, as we’re shown in a brief flash-forward at the beginning of the film. From there it’s off to the races, as Evelyn blindly follows her e-husband’s lead, Will’s power goes to his head (er, microchip?) and the rest of the cast assembles to stop them.

Bettany is perhaps given the most to do, as the film’s voice of reason. It’s another strong supporting performance from a career second fiddle, his turns in A Beautiful Mind and Master and Commander come to mind. Depp doesn’t have to do much, he spends the majority of the film as an evil computer program. And it seems a shame to waste an actress of Hall’s talents, giving her character few facets beyond “sad widow.”

In fact, there’s not a lot here at all. Transcendence would have you believe that it’s posing larger questions about the advancement of technology, but it never quite vaults over the high bar it sets for itself. The build-up to the film’s climax is exciting to watch, but its ending feels awfully convenient and even a little spineless. If Transcendence allowed itself to have any fun, perhaps we would too.