Culture Magazine

Movie Review – Transcendence (2014)

By Manofyesterday

Director: Wally Pfisken

Stars: Johnny Depp, Rebecca Hall, Paul Bettany, Kate Mara, Cillian Murphy and Morgan Freeman 

After Dr. Will Caster (Depp) is attacked by an anti-technology group called R.I.F.T., his wife Evelyn (Hall) and colleague Max (Bettany) decide to upload his mind into an artificial intelligence. Once he’s plugged into the internet he begins to make progress in order to help the world, but other people are aware of the dangers this omniscience presence can bring. They’ve basically created a god, and is it too much power for one disembodied soul to handle? 

Transcendence is an odd film in a way. I found it quite interesting and at times it threatened to raise deep philosophical questions about the nature of our identity and personhood, yet it never fully committed to explore them. The whole film lacked a sense of urgency or peril, and I never got the sense that it knew what point it was trying to express. Was it that we’re not ready for this level of technology? Was it that it’s going to happen whether we’re ready or not and we should simply accept the inevitable? Was it that nothing should have this much power? I’m not sure. They’re all good questions to ponder, but I think the film should have decided on one core concept and explore it fully rather than having a mixture of concepts and have them briefly mentioned then discarded. 

The film meanders along at a pedestrian pace and seems to rely on the strength of the concept to create intrigue from the audience rather than trying to generate it from the cast and the plot. It feels like they had an idea, and that was enough, but it wasn’t. Most of the cast is pretty flat, aside from Hall, who gives a good performance, and Bettany has a few moments where he’s allowed to actually let loose. The rest though…they all just seem to be a part of the scenery. Even Morgan Freeman, who usually brings his patented sense of warmth, feels cold. The whole film feels cold in fact, and I’m not sure if it was a stylistic choice to complement the separation of emotion from technology, but if it was it didn’t work as I didn’t feel engaged at any point.

The main conflict is that Will, as an artificial intelligence, has invented nanites and wants to spread them to other people. This will cure diseases, heal ailments and generally make people smarter, better and stronger. However, it comes at the price of individuality as each person is brought into a network that Will is able to control in one big collective hive mind. If this sounds familiar it should, because the film struck me as being an origin story for The Borg. 

But here’s the thing. There never seems to be a sense of danger or threat. Even though Will has basically taken over the internet no-one acts like it’s a big deal. They all just plod around at a serene pace and act as if this is completely normal. And then even when they take action to stop him, which requires a very big undertaking, it’s not given any real weight and you wonder what the rest of the world thinks about this. For a film that’s trying to talk about the effect of technology on humanity there’s a real lack of focus on the wider world and the actual consequences of such a thing. As such, the whole film ends up feeling lifeless and limp and when it ends there’s just a sense of…nothing. 

I think the whole idea of sacrificing individuality for the benefits of other improvements is an interesting concept and one I think the film should have focused on as it would have given Transcendence an emotional anchor. As it is, it feels hollow, pretentious, and arrogant, and it completely falls flat. There’s just nothing here except the initial idea, and while it’s a good one it needs far more development to make it a compelling story. If you want to watch something that has an omniscient A.I., watch the television show Person of Interest. It doesn’t quite cover the same area as Transcendence attempts to, but it’s far more engaging. I wouldn’t go out of your way to watch Transcendence.

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