The word “transcendent” is an adjective defined as “beyond consciousness or direct apprehension”. I would define the movie Transcendence as a flop “beyond senselessness or direct comprehension”. That may sound harsh, and to be fair, it’s not really a terrible movie. However, it neither makes much sense, nor is entertaining enough to compensate for this flaw.
Although it seems you would benefit from being a rocket scientist to understand what’s happening in Transcendence, you wouldn’t. In fact, the more you know about technology, particularly about artificial intelligence, I suspect the less favorably you’ll receive the movie. We’ve all seen enough science fiction movies and television shows to know that creating computers that can develop their own consciousness is potentially a bad thing.
And there are plenty of characters in Transcendence who think it’s a bad idea to upload Dr. Will Caster’s… brain (?) into a computer when (not a spoiler) he dies. It’s slightly ironic that the same extremist group that murders him consequently becomes the same group that creates the situation they fear and protest.
I don’t completely understand their fear. Computer-Johnny doesn’t DO anything to be afraid of. In fact, he does some pretty amazing, world-improving things. I think the movie would have been much more effective if he first did something “bad” to cause the extremists to need (and the audience to want) to unplug him. Instead, they’re just terrified about what he MIGHT do.
I wear rose-colored glasses much of the time, but I don’t think you have to assume it’s going to be the end of the world. And, for me, I didn’t really know for whom to cheer. Neither Computer-Johnny nor the extremists do anything to make me feel like he’s a real threat.
This ambiguity contributes to the overall pace of the movie so that there are no peaks and valleys; everything happens at the same level. It doesn’t help that the story spans several years and the transitions are abrupt. I have to blame this on first-time director Wally Pfister. He’s a gifted cinematographer from the Christopher Nolan school of film making; however, while he can create some beautiful imagery, he can’t yet manage the overall flow of a complete movie.
Neither does Pfister seem to be a people person. The performances by the actors aren’t very good, even (blasphemy) the beloved Depp’s. In a movie like Transcendence, you realize how much a director helps an actor. And it makes you wonder how much we can credit Tim Burton for Depp’s great performances. (Or, it makes you wonder if Depp excels at only the over-the-top characters.)
I wouldn’t say he’s necessarily miscast; you’d think a computer that develops artificial intelligence would be just another over-the-top character. The problem is his face appears only on monitors and he speaks, well… like a computer. Therefore, his performance is as flat as the rest of the movie. (Even in his “human” scenes at the beginning of the movie, Depp is bad, though.)
The other actors don’t fare much better. While there are some heavy-hitters like Paul Bettany, Cillian Murphy, Kate Mara and Morgan Freeman, none of their characters have much screen time or are even slightly developed. I have to blame this on first-time screenwriter Jack Paglen. There’s simultaneously too much going on and nothing going on. Rebecca Hall fares slightly better. As Depp’s wife facilitating his “transcendence”, she’s the main star.
Even her character bugs me. She supposedly has such a deep love for her husband that she’d do anything to keep him alive. Yet we don’t see any evidence of this other than her saying so. The relationship might have been more believable, and the story more effective, if there was even one scene at the beginning to demonstrate how much they loved each other. That would have given Transcendence something that’s lacking: emotion.
Related to this is my biggest complaint about the movie. If one thing is consistent, it’s the question of whether the computer is or isn’t Depp/Caster. Who cares? In fact, midway through when the question is asked for the umpteenth time, a character even states that it doesn’t matter. Yet the question continues to be asked. I also think it doesn’t matter. The computer is what it has become. Whether or not it retains the essence of the once human Caster doesn’t matter.
And that’s a real issue for Transcendence. It should matter. I cringe to make this comparison, but in a movie like Ghost, you feel Demi Moore’s loss and (unless you have a rock for a heart) it doesn’t matter whether Patrick Swayze died or turned into a computer, he’s gone and you feel true sadness. Transcendence doesn’t come close to having a similar connection with its audience.
Finally, none of this would be as noticeable if the movie at least dazzled us. Thankfully I didn’t pay to see it in IMAX, but there is no reason for it to be shown on a screen made to amaze. The special effects are slow in coming and then lackluster, even if they made a lick of sense. Transcendence is not a disappointment; I never thought it looked good in the trailers and television commercials. But neither is it a pleasant surprise. It just… is.