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Monday, June 2, 2014

Transcendence

Transcendent? Not so much. But hey, at least it tries...


Wally Pfister has spent years becoming one of the most renowned and sought after cinematographers in Hollywood - he started off making straight-to-video erotic thrillers and ended up as Christopher Nolan's right hand man on Inception and the Dark Knight trilogy - so it's rather disheartening to see just how quickly he crashed and burned in his first time in the director's chair. This isn't to say that he won't go on to great things (the raw talent is clearly there) but Transcendence was savaged by most critics and greeted with deafening apathy by audiences in both the US and the UK. Things are hardly much better here. Despite opening up against no real competition, the film has stalled at number 7 in its opening weekend.

As for whether the film deserves the reception it has received, well, it's complicated. It is not, for a start, anywhere near the worst film as the year. Hell, it's not even remotely close to being the worst science fiction movie of the year. What it is, is a disappointment. It's a film with a strong cast, an interesting premise and a director who brings more technical skill and know-how to the proceedings than most first timers, but it is ultimately incredibly unsatisfying and, dare I say it, more than a little dull.

The story it tells is, admittedly, hardly original. Will Caster (Johnny Depp in understated, perhaps even uninteresting form) is a brilliant scientist who specializes in artificial intelligence and comes to realize that the only way to survive a particularly vicious case of radiation poisoning, is to allow his body to die but to live on by transferring his consciousness into an advanced computer. It's a sci-fi premise we've seen plenty of times but there's a reason why it is as well trod as it is. This quite simple idea opens up plenty of rich themes to delve into as it questions the nature of humanity, explores the relationship between consciousness and the soul and draws a line connecting the relationships between man and machine and man and God.

These themes have been tackled in everything from countless episodes of Star Trek to Blade Runner to the Lawnmower Man but never better than in Philip K Dick's mind-bending The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch and Dan Simmons' Fall of Hyperion. The problem with Transcendence isn't that it doesn't explore these themes or even that it doesn't explore them quite as well as two of the greatest science fiction novels of all time, but it's that it quickly loses interest in such intriguing ideas and instead turns into a rather badly thought out monster movie where Caster's consciousness - or is it? - grows a god complex and starts experimenting with nano-technology and enslaved humans.

The film is, as you probably would have guessed, beautifully shot and competently put together but it wastes its perfectly promising potential even more than it wastes its very talented cast on largely uninteresting characters. Rebecca Hall, as Will's loving and equally genius wife, is the only one who really gets very much to do and she all but single-handedly holds the film together but would that we could say the same about the (very talented) likes of Morgan Freeman, Paul Bettany and Kate Mara. 

And again, such a weakness could at least have been somewhat forgiven had the film worked on an ideas level - after all, plenty of excellent science fiction writers are given a pass on weak characterization or prose stylings based on the strength of their ideas - but Transcendence lets itself down by going the easy, less interesting route,

Considering just how ordinary and how safe the film is, its title takes on a whole level of irony that probably wasn't intended in the first place.


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