An interesting sounding science-fiction film with an all-star cast led by the Academy Award-nominee Johnny Depp and directed by Christopher Nolan’s acclaimed cinematographer Wally Pfister, what could go wrong? Let us count the ways.
Transcendence tells the story of Dr. Will Caster, played by a half-asleep Johnny Depp, a scientist working towards the creation of an omniscient, sentient machine. He and his fellow researchers, his wife Evelyn (Rebecca Hall) and friend Max Waters (Paul Bettany), seem to be on a roll, until Will is shot by a member of extremist anti-technology organisation Revolutionary Independence From Technology (R.I.F.T.). When doctors tell the group that Will only has a few months to live, due to the bullet being laced with radioactive chemicals, a desperate Evelyn and reluctant Max embark on a mission to upload Will’s consciousness.
While Transcendence’s log line is somewhat original, the rest of the plot follows in the wavelengths of countless other sci-fi entries in cinema. Basically, bad things happen when machines begin to think on their own. Yep, it’s just another one of those. In saying that, the plot itself is ultimately unimportant here; it’s not what makes the film bad. What does, however, is almost everything else.
The film is told in flashback, with Bettany’s Max narrating from a post-apocalyptic world without electricity. Once we do flash back, there’s no surprise in knowing what happens to this world now is there? Apart from the unnecessary time jump plot-device, the film’s structure is frustratingly episodic. Almost like bunch of “previously, on…” segments simply grouped together, we’re given the punchlines of a story that occurs over quite a long period of time. This sort of structure isn’t necessarily a terrible thing, but it is when those punchlines consist of surprisingly dull forms of exposition and tech-talk.
The one thing that could hold such poor factors together would be the key relationship in the film. Unfortunately, even that barely registers a note of authenticity. Everything revolves around Evelyn’s unwavering love for Will and her inability to let him go. It may help if there was a level of chemistry between Depp and Hall, even when Will was alive. The film expects us to believe that Evelyn and a downright robotic on-screen Will continue a relationship for quite some time, which is not only hard to believe, it’s downright silly to have her in such an eye-rollingly unaware stupor for that whole time. Regardless, Hall puts in her best efforts with a character that does little more than cry and plead. Depp, while finally not overplaying a caricature, barely registers a heartbeat, even if his character is a computer. Bettany fares the best here, putting in an almost three-dimensional effort. Morgan Freeman, Kate Mara and Cillian Murphy get easy pay checks.
There are some interesting ideas thrown about, but they’re bogged down by the film’s uneven screenplay and incessantly flat tone. A screenwriter with his first produced screenplay and a cinematographer with his first film as director; the result doesn’t bode well for either party. Scenes are poorly staged and blandly executed, while the screenplay scatters about somewhat interesting ideas amongst a nonsensical plot.
The plot begins on a relatively stable premise, then everything goes haywire faster than you can say, “Johnny-Deep-followed-The-Lone-Ranger-with-this?” Ever wondered how easy it would be to pretty much own an entire town? Then look no further. The plot lazily relies on time-jumps and convenient trappings to further its paper-thin plot. You know you’re in trouble when the filmmaker’s believe that every plot question can be answered with, “Oh, Will’s brain is online, that’s why.”
This cautionary lecture on the cons of technology barely registers a spark, it simply begs for someone to pull the plug.
THE REEL SCORE: 3/10