Movie Review: 'Transcendence' (2014)

When you boil most films down to their most basic form, what one will discover is that the vast majority are love stories. Underneath the science-fiction surface, "Transcendence" is the same, a story about love and devotion. This proves to be both its greatest strength and ultimate hindrance to reaching its full potential.

A sci-fi computerized Frankenstein film, this certainly is not. The questions that it begs exist in the realm of technology and whether the sterility it offers can be meshed with the emotional heart, at the core of humanity.

Will Caster (Johnny Depp) is a kind-hearted scientist determined to see technology better the world. His other half and fellow scientist Evelyn (Rebecca Hall) works in concert with him to achieve these goals. After a speech, Will is senselessly gunned down with a poison bullet by an anti-tech activist.

Now dying, Evelyn along with her and Will’s friend Max (Paul Bettany) upload Will’s consciousness to a super-computer. Now the question becomes if Will, having now transcended the abilities of being solely human, is in fact, human at all anymore.

The moral implications and resulting outcome of Will’s transcendence are banter for the characters to run around in fear of an occurrence that has not even come to fruition and without indications it will. They pre-judge him instantaneously. The film consistently harkens back to the sentiment of people fearing what they don’t know and yet the esteemed minds espousing this wisdom, don’t take their own advice.

Where the script faces its biggest challenges is in how it shapes the opposing view to transcendence. It is quietly frankly not fleshed out at all. Their reasoning is farcical and at no point does anyone express much outrage over the radical group murdering Will.

It is a beyond frustrating oversight to see a lack of any justice whatsoever. Bree (Kate Mara) the extremist responsible for arranging a mass killing and the murder of the protagonist shows no remorse whatsoever. Sadly, no one ever confronts her with the blunt fact, she is a murderer. 

The script itself takes a rather blasé approach to this entire aspect of the set-up. While the ensemble busies itself with taking down a character that inflicts no harm on anyone, a character they know is responsible for the deaths of hundreds is allowed to walk around free and with government assistance. This part of the story is remarkably weak, maddening and counter-productive to the core premise.

“Transcendence” often muddies the waters of its intended meaning. As a meditation on loss, grief and the desperation to bring a loved one back from the dead, it is powerful. The notion of bringing a lost loved one back to life is alluring and the film acknowledges that.

Unfortunately, Evelyn comes across disenchanted with the notion rather quickly. It’s hard to fathom that the love which would posses someone to go to the lengths she does, would disintegrate over the depicted skirmishes. She seems to be looking for an excuse to end it, from the onset.

Johnny Depp strips down his performance to the essentials, a far cry from the flamboyant characters that have composed his filmography over the last few years. He plays with a lot of subtle layers as Will, portraying a man who realizes that he is all-too human before transforming into a man willing to do something about it. 

As his on-screen counterpart, Rebecca Hall remains emotionally elusive throughout most of the film’s duration. It is the most pivotal role and it falls short of being realized. Making matters worse is that the romantic chemistry between her and Depp never materializes.

There was so much potential in the scripted love story, and it never comes to fruition because of this. Elsewhere, Morgan Freeman and Cillian Murphy are given practically nothing to do. 

First-time director and acclaimed cinematographer Wally Pfister keeps the film moving, while missing opportunities of crucial emotion. The cinematography is pristine and as a result, devoid of much warmth. The special effects are extravagant eye candy.

There is a magnificent movie hidden underneath its clunky mishaps. While acknowledging it’s far from perfect, amongst a sea of forgettable films, “Transcendence” is memorable enough to leave a significant aftermath of thought-provoking passion in its wake. Rating: 6.7/10

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