Judge Gordon Sullivan is no Johnny Depp. Thank God...
Yesterday, Dr. Will Caster was only human.
If we look closely at the archeological evidence, humanity seems to have evolved as tools evolved. Looking even more closely, a reasonable conclusion is that it's impossible to tell if our improving brains crafted better tools, or if better tools spurred our brains to find new uses for them, improving our brains as a byproduct. Our earliest technologies were already about making parts of ourselves external. Today, most people don't consider flint knives as "technology." No, today when we say "technology" it has to be computers and electricity and life-altering machines. This doesn't do anyone a service, as it puts contemporary technology outside the long history of humanity's relationship to exteriorization. The contact list in your phone is just outsourcing your brain, in the same way that a flint knife is outsourcing some of your hand's abilities. Instead of the rational discourse on technology that such a history would facilitate, many people immediately have a visceral negative reaction to technology. That's why we get so many thrillers in the past 20 years focused on how intertwined our lives are with our machines. Transcendence adds to that overwhelming number, and—aside from its pretty visuals—the film is sadly lacking in any substantive point.
Facts of the Case
The singularity: the possibility of creating an artificial intelligence with the capacity to grow beyond human intellect. Dr. Will Caster (Johnny Depp, Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides) is working on such a project with his wife Evelyn (Rebecca Hall, Iron Man 3). But a more-than-human intelligence poses great risks, and a group of terrorists are bent on destroying A.I. research to avoid the singularity. Their plan involves simultaneous attacks on all the major researchers in the field, including Dr. Caster. With his last remaining weeks on earth, Evelyn works to help Will transcend his body by encoding him into an artificial intelligence. Once there, Will's mind (or is it?) moves to control more and more of the world around him.
Christopher Nolan, over the course of eight films, has honed a very particular aesthetic. It's visually-consistent, hyper-rational, and devoid of the kind of emotional and sexual warmth that some viewers crave. I don't think this is a criticism, as I like his films. A good part of Nolan's consistency has to do with his close relationship to his director of photography Wally Pfister (who has shot seven of Nolan's eight films). It's not surprising, then, that Pfister's directorial debut feels a bit like a Nolan knockoff.
I'm really struggling, as I don't want to use Christopher Nolan's excellence as a filmmaker to bludgeon Pfister now that he's stepped out on his own. However, the parallels are just too big to ignore. Part of the problem is that Nolan has consistently used a lot of the same actors, and they've obviously grown fond of Pfister, so Transcendence looks like it was cast out of a Nolan after-party. The film is also the kind of techno-thriller that Nolan has flirted with in his Batman trilogy, and there are a couple of kinda-sorta twists towards the end of the film that are reminiscent of some of Nolan's penchant for narrative games. Finally, because Pfister's eye is so integral to Nolan's success, Transcendence often looks like a Nolan film, down to beautifully-shot-but-basically-pointless close-ups on environmental details.
All that could be forgiven, if Transcendence was a good film…but it's not. The blame for that largely rests on the shoulders of first-time screenwriter Jack Paglen. The script is often nonsensical, can't decide if it's a drama or a thriller, and substitutes dramatically-visual scenes for any kind of character-based drama. The film opens in the future, as Paul Bettany's Dr. Waters narrates the story of Will and Evelyn. This gives us a glimpse of the destruction that will be wrought by whatever is coming. It also lets the air out of the narrative, as we have a pretty good idea what's going to happen and what those consequences will be. That make the next two hours a tedious slog towards a finish line we know is coming.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
At least Transcendence gets a decent Blu-ray release. Honestly, I wanted to be more impressed by the film's 2.40:1/1080p AVC-encoded HD transfer. Though some shots have some really impressive detail, and colors are magnificent throughout the film, it looks a bit like some digital scrubbing of the negative went on at some point. Pfister makes a point of shooting on film, and this transfer seems to have ratcheted down every film-like property of the image, especially anything like grain. It's still watchable and looks okay, but fans of Pfister's work were expecting more. Luckily, the DTS-HD 5.1 Maater Audio track is everything fans could hope for. Dialogue is always clean and clear from the front, while the music and sound effects are detailed and well placed in the surrounds. It's a masterful track that really helps the film.
Extras start with four featurettes, totaling around 13 minutes of material. We hear from the cast about the premise of the film, working with Pfister, what it was like behind-the-scenes, and a look at technology. Then we get three fun promos/trailers for the film. DVD and Digital Copies are also included.
The film isn't as terrible as its low box office returns would suggest. I didn't actively hate it, and it didn't piss me off. It shows that Pfister could have some success with the right screenplay and another great group of actors. The actors here are the highlight of the film, even more than Pfister's excellent eye. It's great to see Johnny Depp playing a regular guy again. Rebecca Hall is wonderful as the distraught Evelyn. Morgan Freeman (The Dark Knight) is reliably avuncular, and everyone from Paul Bettany (Iron Man) and Cillian Murphy (Batman Begins) to Kate Mara (Iron Man 2) do their best with the material.
As far as empty, sci-fi blockbusters go, Transcendence isn't terrible. There's not much to connect with in the story, but if you want to watch cool stuff happen and hear people babble about technology, it's not that bad. But it's also not that great, and Wally Pfister is capable of better. This Blu-ray could be better too, with a more film-like presentation and better extras. But it's worth a rental for the curious.
Guilty of doing too little with too much.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Warner Bros.
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