The last few years have delivered a steady flow of science fiction cinema from both behemoth Hollywood studios as well as independent filmmakers. Films such as District 9, Inception, Oblivion, Upstream colour, Another earth have all approached the genre through different thematic and genre-bending approaches. This year continues the steady trend of science fiction with films like The Signal, Interstellar, and this film, Transcendence. The film is about an artificial intelligence researcher Dr. Will Caster who is on the verge of creating a fully autonomous and powerful, Artificial intelligence. After attacks by a fringe “neo-luddite” extremist group the life of Dr. Will Caster, his wife and research partner Evelyn Caster and their best friend Max Waters are drastically changed as they attempt to merge human consciousness with an AI to save one of their own. The film was directed by long time Christopher Nolan cinematographer Wally Pfister (Memento, The Dark Knight) and stars Johnny Depp in the lead role, Rebecca Hall as his wife, Paul Bettany as Max along with Morgan Freeman, Cillian Murphy, Kate Mara and Cole Hauser.
The film is essentially about the conflict between the digital world and the analog. In the beginning of the film we are privy to Dr. Caster’s attempt at distancing himself from the “grid”, creating a dead-zone in his garden where signals cannot penetrate. Additionally the couple seem fond of records and there is a concentration on the tactile and the physical world in the shot selection. As the three main characters are all researchers and work in the field of AI they are deeply entrenched within the digital. This grasp for the analog, a fragment of the physical instead of the virtual is a problem throughout the film. Max is the one who is most reticent about the implications of a fully functioning and free AI, and as the film repeats many times, has inherent philosophic problems with this technological advancement. Evelyn wants to fully pursue the option and can only see the potential good in this technological development. Will is initially uninterested in the moral problems raised by AI research, and is even uninterested in the practical applications, his interest is purely intellectual or at least it is initially. There is also the evident discussion of the danger of scientific research in general and, as an extension, the hubris and ambition of mankind.
While the ideas of the film, the fight between digital and analogue and the idea of a “synthesis” of the two is extremely compelling and interesting the film falls short of a true, deep exploration of the topics. Everything is more or less hand fed to the audience through dialogue or ponderous symbolism. While the cinematography is relatively ok the thematic underpinning of the film is always awkwardly conveyed through Terrence Malick-esque close-ups of flowers. Frustratingly the film does not look as good as one would hope since its director is one of the best cinematographers working in Hollywood. The director is well known for his staunch, pro-film stance and still advocates using 35mm along with frequent collaborator Christopher Nolan yet the film doesn’t look as though it was shot on film. The themes of the film felt like they mattered deeply to the director but one is left confused as to the conclusion put forth by the film. If merely an intellectual exercise on the debate it poorly conveys how interesting and stimulating the debate really is.
While all the actors are more or less fine, the one stand out performance, at least for me, was Paul Bettany who managed to eke meaning and some emotion into the project. Johnny Depp is fine, as is Rebecca Hall but frankly the script is less than stellar which makes the actor’s jobs even harder. Another problem with the film is the pacing. The action feels underwhelming and frankly boring. The emotional scenes don’t quite hit and, though it is unfair to compare it to the films of a frequent collaborator and one of the most revered directors of the 21st century, the film feels like a poor imitation of a Nolan film. The film feels like an attempt at a Nolan-esque film without the coherent depth and intricate construction of a Nolan film. Scenes are edited into a sequence but they rarely feel coherent or create a natural flow.
In essence Transcendence is a film that is not nearly as horrible as it could be because of the inherently interesting themes. However it fails to capture the debate in an interesting and compelling matter instead resorting to tying up the moral debate with a love story in a unsuccessful way. The idea of tying up the love story with the greater debate is great and is widely used, used quite frequently by the Nolan brothers, but there is nowhere near enough weight and importance felt in this film. As a massive fan of Wally Pfister’s cinematography it crushes me that I did not enjoy the film and it crushes me that the film bombed at the box office. Maybe my expectations were too high and Pfister’s close working relationship with Chris Nolan created unnecessary hype (this is undoubtedly the case).