That’s odd. My computer won’t let me grade this anything below an A+. Academy Award nominee Johnny Depp, Rebecca Hall, Paul Bettany and Academy Award winner Morgan Freeman star in Wally Pfister’s directorial debut, Transcendence.

303747id1a_Transcendence_FNL_Rated_27x40_1Sheet.inddCast of Characters:
Dr. Will Caster – Johnny Depp
Joseph Tagger – Morgan Freeman
Evelyn Caster – Rebecca Hall
Bree – Kate Mara
Agent Donald Buchanan – Cillian Murphy
Colonel Stevens – Cole Hauser
Max Waters – Paul Bettany

Director – Wally Pfister
Screenplay – Jack Paglen
Producer – Andrew A. Kosorve, Broderick Johnson, Kate Cohen, Marisa Polvino, Annie Marter, David Valdes & Aaron Ryder
Rated PG-13 for sci-fi action and violence, some bloody images, brief strong language and sensuality

Dr. Will Caster (Johnny Depp) and his team of AI researches, wife Evelyn (Rebecca Hall) and Max Waters (Paul Bettany), are in the midst of a breakthrough with artificial intelligence that could lead to the creation of a machine that can possess sentience and collective intelligence. Caster refers to this as “transcendence”.

Peter Griffin would be so happy.

Following a presentation, Caster is shot by a group of Luddite terrorists, led by Bree (Kate Mara). The bullet only grazed Caster; however, it was laced radioactive material, causing his body to gradually shut down in a few weeks.

Not wanting to let go of her husband or they work they’ve spent much blood, sweat and tears on, Evelyn decides to upload her husband’s consciousness into a computer, so she can continue the progress toward a sentient machine. This is met with much hesitation from Max, though, as he fears it could lead to many unintended consequences.

Which, big surprise, happen.

This was one of my most anticipated films of the first half of 2014 for a variety of reasons. First, you have an incredibly talented cast featuring Johnny Depp, Rebecca Hall, Paul Bettany, Cillian Murphy and it’s never a mistake to add Morgan Freeman. Secondly, this marks the directing debut of Wally Pfister, Christopher Nolan’s long-time cinematographer who’s worked with Nolan since Memento. We know what Pfister is capable of visually, but that doesn’t necessarily mean it’ll translate to great direction. That said, he did get the thumbs up from Nolan (who’s billed as an executive producer here), and that’s saying quite a bit.

What a hugely disappointing film, though.

The setup had me hooked. I’m a sucker for AI type films such as 2001: A Space Odyssey, A.I. Artificial Intelligence and The Terminator series, and the thought of Johnny Depp, for once, not dancing around caked under a truckload of makeup (to be fair, fun for the first few films, but you get the point after a while) made it even better. This film is so boring, though, after the first 25-30 minutes, and from that point you literally feel every second of the remaining 90 minutes you got left of the film. I’m not saying I need Michael Bay at the helm packing this with eye-raping visuals and explosions popping out of every square inch of the screen. I’m all for a thinking man’s take on a sci-fi film. Close Encounters of the Third Kind is a perfect example, but that film (which still had some very impressive visuals even for 1977) contained heart, strong characters and emotional depth. Transcendence has none of that.

The big problem here is that for Pfister and screenwriter Jack Paglen (also making his debut), they’re shooting for the moon here. I mean, why get your feet when you can just dive into the deep end without a life preserver… or knowing how to swim? There’s just too many big themes and ideas they’re both trying to capture that the narrative – which involves a healing version of some Invasion of the Body Snatchers type of story – just gets messier and more ludicrous as it continues on, leading up to a showdown between Will’s super-humans and the FBI/Luddite activists that by then had me as uninvolved as everyone in the film seemed to be. Some of the themes revolving around the control technology has on us could’ve been worked in ways to hit the viewer with much relevance. The execution falls flat, though, and feels more like an excuse for Pfister, now in the director’s chair, to give us visual astonishment instead of focusing on the story and characters.

You can have all the visual astonishment in the world, but if I can’t care about the characters or their situations then it really means nothing.

It’s really too bad that this is by far the most personally disappointing film I’ve seen this year. Pfister’s no slouch when it comes to his work as a cinematographer. His craftsmanship is immaculate, and in all fairness to this film, it does look amazing. Paul Bettany and Rebecca Hall both share a few genuinely emotional moments together, representing both sides of the AI argument: Bettany worries that what they’re dealing with isn’t really Will, and Hall struggles to let him go for good. Unfortunately, those moments are few and we’re left with other supporting acts with absolutely nothing to work with. Character actors Cillian Murphy and Clifton Collins, Jr. have their underrated talents wasted. Kate Mara, a fine actress, is wasted in the most thankless role of the entire film, and – like Kate Winslet in Divergent – exactly how the hell does Morgan Freeman get nothing to do here? Well, aside from popping up to offer his “Father Time” sage advice.

It’s like they figured they got Morgan Freeman, so they don’t really need to give him anything ’cause he’s Morgan Freeman and people will just accept that.

As for the lead, Johnny Depp, he’s fine in the first act that allows him to finally be normal for once, but after he’s uploaded into the computer his performance becomes boxed in like his character. I understand he’s supposed to be a super-computer now, but that’s no excuse. HAL 9000 (in my opinion, the best film villain ever) was a computer and he struck fear in every moviegoer that went to see 2001: A Space Odyssey. We don’t get fear. We get indifference as this movie bounces back and forth wondering whether or not Depp’s Caster is supposed to be good or bad. Depp is an extremely gifted actor with a versatility that can range from animated (Pirates of the Caribbean), restrained (Finding Neverland, his best performance) or a bit of both (Edward Scissorhands), but here it’s such a unengaging performance. I don’t quite fault him as much as I do the script he got to work with.

If there’s a silver lining here, it’s that I hope Pfister learns from his mistakes in this film when taking on his next project. I still think, provided it’s with the right project for him, he can transition into a solid director. He has potential and he most definitely has the talent to deliver something special visually. He just needs to work more on tone, narrative and pacing.

I hate to go the comparison by association route, but one can only wonder how Transcendence would’ve look with Christopher Nolan at the helm. Underneath all the one-dimensional characters, convoluted narrative and “technology vs. humans” tropes, there’s an ambitious concept too far buried to be tapped into. With all the talent and potential packed into this film, you’d think and hope for a well-written sci-fi thriller with much emotional resonance. What we get is a great looking film containing story and direction with no motive or heart. Here’s hoping Pfister can get it right the next time.

I give Transcendence a D+ (★½).


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