Published Jul 22, 2014The concept of technological singularity is nothing new. The idea that man and machine would one day merge into the same thing has been around since the '50s, and was the driving force behind William Gibson's groundbreaking Sprawl trilogy; even an episode of The Big Bang Theory makes reference to it. Thus, the idea of uploading Johnny Depp's consciousness to the Internet doesn't hold much water in the world of high-minded sci-fi nerds and judging by long time cinematographer, first-time director Wally Pfister's debut Transcendence, nor does it make for very good blockbuster filmmaking.
Dr. Will Caster (Depp) and his wife, Evelyn (Rebecca Hall) are trying to build a sentient computer, but their work comes under fire from a violent luddite group called Revolutionary Independence from Technology (RIFT, led by Kate Mara as Bree) who lead a series of assassinations on the scientific community in an attempt to halt their progress. Caster is shot with an irradiated bullet, infecting his body. In an attempt to save her husband, Evelyn and their morally-troubled colleague Max upload Will's consciousness to the Internet.
Caster quickly acquaints himself with his new form and begins setting up a community for himself and Evelyn in the desert, eventually mastering nanotechnology, which he uses to repair human tissue, control anyone whose body he has infiltrated with his nanotech and eventually rebuild his own body. Bree's RIFT, Max and the US Government, all disturbed by these occurrences, lead a revolt against Will and Evelyn's utopia in an attempt to upload a virus that would send civilization back to the dark ages.
Beautiful cinematography, a stacked cast and interesting glimpses at our possible future don't distract from the fact that Pfister can't decide what kind of film he wants to make. Is this a small, character-driven hard sci-fi flick that asks us to consider the limits of technology? Or is this a technological, star-driven blockbuster?
He chooses both, and tries to walk a fine line between long scenes of exposition and unimaginative action sequences. Shooting from a script written by first-time feature writer Jack Paglen, Pfister, who cut his teeth shooting films that expertly walked that same line for Christopher Nolan, keeps the focus on Will and Evelyn even while letting more interesting, or at least more visually fascinating facets of the plot melt away. RIFT in particular are essentially side-lined after putting the plot in motion.
The Blu-Ray is augmented by perfunctory featurettes featuring cast and crew back-patting themselves and asking open-ended philosophical questions interspersed with scenes from the film, but offer little insight into Pfister's intent or the filmmaking process.
Poorly paced and visually dull, Transcendence can't muster the powers of its formidable creative team to make a film worthy of its lofty, if overused, conceit.