Transcendence (dir. Wally Pfister, 2014) – A radical anti-technology group fights to prevent Dr. Will Caster from successfully creating his omniscient, sentient machine.
A good eye for the aesthetics barely saves a potentially brilliant cerebral premise, mangled by script weaknesses.
Evolution has been kind, and Man has come a very long way since hominids wielded a bone and tilted their heads. Where do we head from here? To futurists, machines seem to be the logical answer. Precise accuracy, collective memory, and a tireless objectivity put them in a better place to push limits beyond human capacity.
The field of science has long been working towards the coveted breakthrough – to have a machine pass the Turing test. We are not far from that possibility, and that should unsettle us.
How can we entrust sentience to one with a mind powerful enough to outsmart its creators, an ability to be omnipresent in the densely-networked world, and a deific immortality that will make it virtually unstoppable? What then, when
it he, too, learns to thirst for advancement?
Scientific minds must wrestle with the dilemma of a desire for humanity’s betterment, and the eventuality of giving up control over something that none of us fully understand. The impasse comes to an end for Dr. Evelyn Caster (Rebecca Hall), when she makes the decision to save her husband Will (Johnny Depp) from certain death.
Racing against time, her only choice is to preserve his mind in the digital realm, with the help of fellow A.I. researcher Dr. Max Waters (Paul Bettany). Once she successfully uploaded Will’s knowledge and memories into an existing model of artificial intelligence, the lines between man and machine begin to blur.
What defines consciousness? What is a soul? Transcendence surfaces these difficult questions in its themes, yet disappointingly oversimplifies its answer, as it all comes down to a battle between good and evil. Keen on taking strides, the story misses the subtlety and sophistication that classics like 2001: A Space Odyssey cemented their reputation with. Writer Jack Paglen’s eagerness to push for the explosive finale never leaves enough time to fully realise his interesting ideas.
Impatience shows through a lack of interest in developing characters past bland and purely functional plot devices, built for specific purposes. Deficiency in the portrayal of humanity, in a probe of the complex question of ‘What makes a man, a man’, is especially bugging.
Kate Mara plays the leader of
intense staring a Resistance group with murky radical ideals. Cillian Murphy takes on the role of the obligatory FBI guy, whose first name might just be Agent. Morgan Freeman is… well, probably just there because he’s cool.
Half-raw character motivations lead to a trail of questionable decisions and excessive exposition. Depending on whether you enjoy dramatics, you may or may not love lines like these:
“We’re not going to fight them… We’re going to transcend them.”
Director Wally Pfister’s sleek visual style mitigates the script’s weaknesses, as best as he possibly can. Though slightly less impressive than his past outings as a cinematographer (to be fair, Inception is hard to match), Transcendence still holds a hint of his usual keen eye for aesthetic wonderment in futuristic imagery.
Visual lustre and intriguing concepts make for sufficiently engaging entertainment, with unfulfilled potential in its execution. Here’s to hoping the Battlestar Galactica reboot, should Jack Paglen get the gig, will prove that Transcendence was only a slight misstep.