The debut film by Wally Pfister, best known as the cinematographer on all of director Christopher Nolan’s films, including Inception and The Dark Knight, Transcendence stars Johnny Depp as Dr. Will Castor, a leading computer scientist, who along with his wife Evelyn (Rebecca Hall), specialises in the study of artificial intelligence. Predicting a breakthrough on their creation of a sentient super-computer with the ability to change the world and achieve ‘transcendence’, he is fatally injured during an assassination attempt by a radical anti-technology terrorist group, fearing the impact such a machine will have.
With Will dying, Evelyn frantically works to upload his consciousness onto their experimental computer, causing it to develop its own self-awareness based upon his conscious mind. The grieving Evelyn uploads the computer-Will to the internet, where it starts to grow and spread.
It’s easy to see that Pfister is covering similar territory to his work with Nolan. It’s an extremely serious and humourless film, combining a sci-fi love story with a cautionary tale about the dangers of technology. The script ponders some interesting concepts about what it is to be human, and the potential of technology to improve our lives, but poses them in a muddled script which never develops much sense of threat or tension. Will’s growing power is hinted at but never fully explored, making the film feel surprisingly small and uninvolving.
As such, most of the film takes place in bare white labs, offices or deserts, in which characters discuss issues of the philosophy of technology. The plot mostly concerns how the two opposing sides of the debate prepare for the inevitable, but ultimately underwhelming, big finale, leaving the film to feel like essentially a long montage.
The relationship between Will and Evelyn should really be the main focus of the film, with her questioning whether she can love a human-like machine, and indeed, if that computer even is Will. But their loving marriage never comes across as especially convincing or engaging. It may be Depp is doing an excellent job of playing an emotionless computer, but he comes across as being perpetually bored in a rather flat performance. Hall tries her best, mixing grief with intelligent determination, but the script limits her scope.
The film looks good, with a controlled gaze and nice shots of desert ghost towns and vast fields of solar panels. But visuals alone aren’t enough to make up for a film which ultimately feels pretty dreary. With its fears of global technological threat, I couldn’t help thinking of Transcendence as being like a less involving or entertaining version of The Terminator. If you want to see a better film about human relationships with technology, then you should definitely watch Her, a charming, funny, believable and overall touching film about modern love.
Overall, whilst it is admirable that Transcendence considers some complex questions, it comes at the expense of making an exciting and memorable thriller.
Words by Patrick Lavin