And so the summer of sci-fi begins. Seriously, have you guys noticed the ridiculous amount of sci-fi stuff coming out soon? The Amazing Spider-Man 2 comes out next Friday (or it’s already out if you’re in the U.K.), then Godzilla, X-Men: Days of Future Past, Jupiter Ascending, Guardians of the Galaxy, etc. Seems to be the genre of the summer—which I’m cool with, since that stuff’s right up my alley. I guess you could say that Captain America: The Winter Soldier kicked things off, and now here’s Transcendence following right after.
This film definitely made me curious. In fact, it found its way into my 20 Films of 2014 list back at the beginning of the year. So a buddy and I took a trip to the movie theater on opening day, and lo and behold—we were the only ones in the theater. Should we have considered that a sign? Maybe. Should I have given more thought to the low Tomatometer rating on Rotten Tomatoes? Maybe. But I had made plans, and I wanted to see a movie, gosh darn it! Really, Transcendence isn’t bad—the visuals are interesting and so is the premise. It’s just one of those movies that the more you think about it, the more you find to pick on. Did I dislike the film? No. Can I think of about a dozen things wrong with it? You bet.
Synopsis: “As Dr. Will Caster works toward his goal of creating an omniscient, sentient machine, a radical anti-technology organization fights to prevent him from establishing a world where computers can transcend the abilities of the human brain.” –Borrowed from my favorite movie site, IMDb.
The Good: Like I said above, the premise is undoubtedly interesting. In some ways, it reminds me of Her (which I wrote a mini review for awhile back if you’d like to see), albeit a much more sci-fi-focused take on artificial intelligence as opposed to a drama/love story. In addition to the focus on a highly advanced scientific organization, there’s the stark contrast of an extreme anti-technology organization that you could even call a terrorist group. The latter I found to be a particularly interesting element. It seems like everyone is pushing for better technology in modern society; it’s not often that you come across a group opposing it. But in some ways, I could see why they’re reluctant to trust it. The technology that develops in this film is pretty amazing—so amazing that it seems more like magic than science (I’m looking at you, nanotechnology). It’s a treat to watch this technology go to work, leaving very little to complain about in the visuals department. As far as the actors go, this is definitely the kind of film where you pay more attention to the special effects than the performances, but there are a few standouts. Rebecca Hall as Will’s wife, Evelyn, for instance. She essentially becomes the main protagonist of the film, and though you may not always agree with some of her actions, Hall is very convincing and likeable in the role. I could say the same for Paul Bettany, who plays a somewhat conflicted scientist and a close friend to Will and Evelyn.
Favorite scene: Hard to say, but I guess the very last scene—there’s a close-up shot of water dripping off of a vibrant sunflower in slow motion. Purdy.
The Bad: There are just so many elements of the story to nitpick. Unfortunately, I can’t talk about many of them without delving into spoilers, but I’ll talk about what I can. First of all, the anti-technology organization is an interesting element, sure, but there’s not enough done with it. Unfortunately, it becomes a bland semi-terrorist group with unexplained origins, a nasty habit of destroying more human beings than the technology it hates so much, and a leader (Kate Mara) who is completely undeveloped and unsympathetic. Then, there’s the character of Will. Played by the brilliant Johnny Depp, you’d expect Will to sparkle, but here’s the thing about Depp: when it comes to straight characters (by which I mean “not eccentric,” not “heterosexual”), he’s really not at his best. Depp excels at the Jack Sparrows and Edward Scissorhands and Mad Hatters of the acting world. I find that when he has to tone it down for more normal guys, he often comes off as…boring. Such is the case here. And he’s even more boring when his mind is transferred into artificial intelligence. However, I partly blame the writers for that. Will’s motives as an artificial intelligence system are confusing—particularly by the end of the film. If you’ve seen it, I’m sure you understand what I mean. Likewise, Bettany’s character frustrated me because his loyalties shift so abruptly and with barely any pressure. Basically, the characters could be much stronger. Then there are actors like Morgan Freeman and Cillian Murphy, who are in the film but hardly worth mentioning because their roles are so pitiful. Why cast big names if you aren’t going to use them? Other than that, I will simply say that this film becomes more generic as it progresses, which is a shame—it really does have some thought-provoking concepts.
Least favorite scene: The big, dramatic finale. Not the sunflower scene I mentioned above, but the conclusion of the tech vs. anti-tech war. It’s just…not satisfying.
To Sum It Up: I was hard on this film, but I really didn’t have a huge problem with it. Transcendence is a fair bit of sci-fi fun—imperfect, but with interesting ideas at its core for the intellectual lot and impressive visuals for the more aesthetically inclined. If you’re a fan of this genre, I might not recommend paying full price at a movie theater, but I’d say give it a rental once it’s out on DVD.
My Grade: B-