The fact that Transcendence looks immaculate isn’t surprising. This picture is cinematographer Wally Pfister’s feature film debut, his first directorial effort after having done much work as a director of photography, most notably on all of Christopher Nolan’s movies. With Transcendence he proves to have the directing chops, but unfortunately the movie itself isn’t a resounding success. That mostly has to do with its foundation, with a screenplay that simply isn’t up to par. The premise is sound though: scientist Will Caster, portrayed by Johnny Depp, is a frontrunner in the field of artificial intelligence, which makes him revered in some circles but infamous in others. When a terrorist group fatally injures Will in an attempt on his life, he has only one chance at survival; to upload his conscious to a computer.
What follows is a contemporary sci-fi movie that toys with the notions of A.I., nanotechnology and even with some philosophical topics, like the soul. While these aren’t original ideas by any means and the subject matter has been tackled in the realm of science fiction many times over, Transcendence deals with its topics adequately and the film’s stellar cast manages to elevate the issues the picture deals with via some very real and emotional performances. Even when Transcendence goes completely overboard during the third act and it abandons all of its interesting ideas in favor of a dull action film finale, the talented actors keep the movie grounded and manage to deliver some poignant moments amidst crazy megalomaniacal plans and big explosions. After having played a ton of quirky one-dimensional character, Depp delivers with a subdued, tender and scary performance, reminding his audience that he’s still got it. Co-leads Rebecca Hall and Paul Bettany also impress with very nuanced turns. Hall is Caster’s wife, a woman who struggles with her husband’s new condition, and Bettany portrays a colleague and friend of the couple who’s more hesitant when it comes to the use of Caster’s technology.
The rest of Transcendence‘s story is cookie-cutter though: the plot surrounding the terrorists and their plans is very middle-of-the-road, the way some characters change their allegiance comes off as forced and ham-fisted, and talented actors like Cillian Murphy, Morgan Freeman, Kate Mara and Clifton Collins Jr. get parts that are a waste of their acting abilities. While the last moment of the movie is quite poetic and sweet, the device that leads to the film’s conclusion is one of the oldest clichés in the book when it comes to movie dealing with computers, which makes the ending quite disappointing.
Despite some interesting ideas, Transcendence is very flimsy. The performances of the film’s three leads manage to keep you invested in the sub-par story, though. 6/10