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Transcendence Review: Love+Computer = End of Instagram and Selfies

Here's why Transcendence is big on talk and small on do.

Review by: Matt Cummings

The idea of a world gone mad has produced several great films over the past several years, including Oblivion, Ender's Game, and Pacific Rim. In these, man deals with the end of his existence, brought on by a terrible epoch; in the case of Transcendence, we get to see the disaster as it unfolds. The result is filled with messy storytelling and performances we want to like, and a cautionary tale that feels all used up.

Artificial Intelligence researcher Will Caster (Johnny Depp) is one of several scientists leading the charge to incorporate man into machines. After coordinated attacks by home-grown terrorists, that apparatus is nearly destroyed, leaving several teams dead and Caster condemned to a slow irradiated end. A radical decision is made: merge science from the various labs to transfer Caster's mind into a computer. His wife Evelyn (Rebecca Hall) and friend Max (Paul Bettany) eventually succeed, and Will's consciousness is reborn. Without the of limitations of flesh, he's able to regenerate cells, cure diseases, and purify water and the environment itself. But both the FBI - led by Agent Buchanan (Cillian Murphy) - and the terrorist leader Bree (Kate Mara) realize the inherent danger Will represents. As they face off, Evelyn must decide whether her husband's digitized soul is more important than the survival of mankind.

Depp seems like an actor who relishes playing extreme characters, those who mock society with their antics but are somehow filled with brilliance that someone eventually needs. Put him in a vanilla role like Will Caster and Depp seems like a fish out of water. His rather flat delivery is sometimes hard to hear, and he genuinely seems uncomfortable in several spots, as if he's powerless to affect the plot holes developing around him. And there are a few: a messy timeline and poor attention paid to supporting actors leave us with the sense that Transcendence either suffered a huge edit or was reshot after test audiences initially rejected it. News that the marketing team added dramatic Morgan Freeman dialogue from another film just goes to show how even Hollywood was worried about its chances. Perhaps that concern was justified, as its typical distopian caution never elevates itself into new territory. Consider an ending where man and machine CAN and DO work together to rescue the environment and cure diseases without taking your freedom of choice as a form of lifetime payment. That's a future worth living for, and one we wish would have been explored here.

Having served as Christopher Nolan's cinematographer for the Batman series, Pfister can orchestrate a pretty scene and fill it with believable A.I.. But a film of this type must do more, and this is where Transcendence - a love story buried in a Science Fiction tale - ultimately fails. The idea of loved ones sacrificing for one another is a powerful but understated message here that gets lost in squint-eyed distrust of tech gone awry. Transcendence's maturity arrives too late, thanks in turn to Writer Jack Paglen's rather one dimensional script. SJF favorites Murphy, Bettany, and Morgan Freeman become confusing pawns whose intentions are never fleshed out enough for us to care about what they're doing. Hall on the other hand is very good, devoted to her husband to a fault while ushering in a future where rotting and unpowered cities represent mankind's legacy. That's a hard sell when compared to superhero shield-throwing and steel-drumming animated Macau; and while Transcendence's dark tenets no doubt demonstrate our creative team's desire to tell a gritty tale, the final product would have been so much more.

Transcendence is the kind of film that will be hard-pressed to find a devoted lot willing to give it a chance. Those who do will be treated to an intellectually superior, cautionary tale that takes on a Revolution-like ending, one that the Instagram fans of the world will be hard-pressed to accept. Unfortunately, they'll be too busy uploading pictures of their dinners to notice, while paying customers will notice the sloppy timeline, cluttered one-dimensional characters, and Depp's out-of-sorts persona. Pfister's outing isn't terrible, but its plot is typical Hollywood distopia that fails to elevate the larger conversation about our increasing depends upon machines.

Transcendence is rated PG-13 for sci-fi action and violence, some bloody images, brief strong language and sensuality. and has a runtime of 119 minutes.

Discuss this review with fellow SJF fans on Facebook. On Twitter, follow us at @SandwichJohnFilms, and follow author Matt Cummings at @mfc90125.

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