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Dustin Putman

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Transcendence  (2014)
2 Stars
Directed by Wally Pfister.
Cast: Johnny Depp, Rebecca Hall, Paul Bettany, Kate Mara, Morgan Freeman, Cillian Murphy, Cole Hauser, Clifton Collins Jr., Cory Hardrict, Xander Berkeley, James Burnett, Sam Quinn, Falk Hentschel, Josh Stewart, Luce Rains, Fernando Chien, Steven Liu, Sam Webb, Lukas Haas.
2014 – 119 minutes
Rated: Rated PG-13 (for violence, some bloody images, brief strong language and sensuality).
Reviewed by Dustin Putman, April 16, 2014.
"Transcendence" is much too lofty a title for a film that is rarely, if ever, transcendent. The directorial debut of cinematographer Wally Pfister (2012's "The Dark Knight Rises"), this cautionary sci-fi thriller is something of a muddled mess. Unable to make up its mind about what it wants to be and what it wants to say, Pfister and first-time screenwriter Jack Paglen try to hypocritically have things both ways. Is this a modern-day story of the apocalypse? A tale of ultimate worldly rejuvenation? Why is there such a heavy reliance on CGI to tell a staunchly anti-technology allegory? "Transcendence" goes back and forth throughout, bereft of a fixed vision and a singular creative point of view.

Dr. Will Caster (Johnny Depp) and his wife, Evelyn (Rebecca Hall), are on the verge of controversially creating sentient machines equipped with self-awareness and a full range of emotions when terrorist attacks break out at computer labs across the country. Will survives one of these shootings, but learns soon after that the bullet he was hit with was laced with a deadly radiation poison. He physically passes away weeks later, but not before Evelyn and best friend/fellow researcher Max Waters (Paul Bettany) upload his mind onto a computer. Max is adamant that the voice and grainy likeness of Will is not really him—would Will, he argues, ask first thing to be plugged into the Internet and Wall Street?—but Evelyn firmly disagrees. At his instruction, the couple move off the grid and summarily buy out a tiny town in the California desert called Brightwood. Two years later, they are running a state-of-the-art lab facility, having created technology able to build human tissue. As Will begins transplanting a piece of his artificial self in the sick and injured as a means of "curing" them, Max teams up with concerned colleague Joseph Tagger (Morgan Freeman) and a radical group led by Bree (Kate Mara) to find a way to stop him from his ultimate goal to end primitive organic life.

An unofficial 21st-century update of Robert A. Heinlein's 1951 novel, "The Puppet Masters," with a generous helping of the Borg from "Star Trek" blatantly thrown into the mix, "Transcendence" has precious few original ideas to carve out its own identity. The premise, while derivative in a lot of respects, shows promise but doesn't take full advantage of its sense of encroaching paranoia. As the digitized Will is unleashed through the Internet, begins spreading among the population, and sets up his own surveillance across the globe, one can imagine how these frightening concepts could be milked for all they're worth. With the exception of a few scenes depicting the instantaneous regeneration of Will's human hybrids and their connective indestructibility to the increasingly synthetic world around them, director Wally Pfister misses out on expanding his ideas. Worse, he is not exactly certain what point he wants to make by the end, leaving the picture's would-be dramatic impression in disarray.

The core relationship—the one meant to be cared most about—is between spouses Will and Evelyn, but their crucial soulful match is botched due to miscasting. It always seems more indulgent to see Johnny Depp (2013's "The Lone Ranger") playing a regular guy rather than an out-there, over-the-top character because it happens so rarely, but his heart doesn't appear to be in it. His performance as Dr. Will Caster is subdued in the first act before he largely becomes a face on a screen. As the supposedly intelligent Evelyn, who is dafter than a box of tacos, Rebecca Hall (2013's "Iron Man 3") emits an off-putting coldness that is ruinous to the emotional resonance of their tragic love story. When Will's human body dies and Evelyn mournfully spreads his ashes by a dock only for the wind to blow them back in her face, it is worth a hearty chuckle—probably not exactly the intended response. Paul Bettany (2011's "Priest") is much stronger in a less demanding role, his Max coming to understand the dangers of messing with the natural order. As for Morgan Freeman's (2013's "Now You See Me") Joseph and Kate Mara's (2012's "10 Years") Bree, who has one attention-grabbing moment where she vehemently explains her position against the creation of artificial intelligence, they are sadly underused.

Key developments during the climax of "Transcendence" are convoluted in the extreme and creatively dishonest to what has come before. As for the flimsy resolution, its intentions ring false and its motives are confused. A serious rewrite should have definitely been in order before Warner Bros. greenlit this expensive $100-million project. If the finished product sounds like a bust—and yeah, it kind of is—Pfister does display an unsurprising confidence behind the camera no doubt as a result of his years as an ace director of photography. Speaking of cinematography, Jess Hall's (2013's "The Spectacular Now") filmic 35mm lensing is visually arresting, full of looming aerials and magnified natural imagery. Palpable portent is built in spurts as Will's power-hungry doings are put into motion, but there is also a fair amount of downtime in between that slows the momentum. Johnny Depp and Rebecca Hall are so unresponsive as an onscreen couple that they look like they can barely stand to be around each other. For a movie warning of the dangers of a booming digital era, "Transcendence" is missing a necessary human touch.
© 2014 by Dustin Putman
Dustin Putman