The problem with big, science-fiction based ideas is that eventually, it becomes “silly.” Anything that starts based in fact but tries to do something extraordinary or unique will eventually have to border on the unbelievable to keep the concept interesting. Only a few directors have managed to make science-fiction movies that don’t cross the silly border, making their cast and movie seem like it’s taking itself too seriously considering what it is asking the audience to believe. Alfonso Cuaron in both Gravity and Children of Men manages this brilliantly, as does Christopher Nolan with Inception.Their movies never lose themselves to the story’s more incredible ideas. Unfortunately, the same can’t be said for Wally Pfister’s Transcendence.
It starts very promising, although at an extraordinary pace. Within the first twenty minutes, we have met every character, found out everyone’s motivations and what drives them and then managed to kill off Johnny Depp’s Dr Will Caster and have him uploaded into a computer and then given access to the internet. It is all done very well, with expert story-telling but does feel slightly rushed, cutting from one scene to another without pausing for any consideration or breathe.
This can be forgiven because the reason people came to see the film was the idea of a man’s mind in a computer. It’s a thought that doesn’t feel that far away from reality and with the internet making every answer, home and bank account easily accessible, it also manages to demonstrate what power something like that would have. It’s the movies strongest aspect. The first moments of Will Caster as a computer are incredible and as he sets up his master plan for a better world, it truly demonstrates how scary this could be. It also opens up some interesting questions about control and how much we trust machines as well. All done very well in a taut thriller-style.
In fact, most of the movie is a tense, interesting and focused thriller. It doesn’t feel like a science-fiction concept because what is being discussed isn’t far into the future and is very recognisable as science fact. It also helps that the cast are very able, bringing some gravitas to the story. Morgan Freeman is solid as always, alongside able support from Cillian Murphy and Paul Bettany. It’s the central performance of Rebecca Hall as Caster’s wife and the orchestrater of the whole movies plot and of course, Johnny Depp as the computer itself. It feels like a strange choice for a man who is known to play a role anything but straight but for a performance that is mainly voice based, he becomes the perfect choice.
The issue is the final third of the movie. The story finds itself trying to ask questions about the computer’s intentions and what it is really trying to do. As the computer begins to make questionable decisions, the direction of the movie jolts forward to science-fiction quite rapidly. Human-drones, nano-bots and a host of other outlandish claims begin to stretch the believability and suspension of disbelief in a movie that hadn’t felt like it was going in that direction at all.
It isn’t helped by the very sombre, dark, and serious tone the movie has chosen to take. This is an appropriate tone for majority of the movie but as the more silly moments appear, the tone just makes the events on-screen seem more absurd.
It’s a shame because for most of the movie, the film manages to tell a compelling story that offers some very thought-provoking ideas. Even in the final moments, there are some questions to be asked and some grey areas on who the real enemies and heroes are. It just feels like some of this becomes lost in the silly events of the movies climax.
Overall, Transcendence is a great idea delivered very well. It begins as a very interesting thriller, with some fantastic performances. Unfortunately, the final moments of the movie, when it goes full science-fiction offer something too silly compared to the first half of the movie, meaning that what you are left with is a cheap popcorn movie rather than the intelligent story you were promised at the beginning.
(1 – Awful, 2 – Average, 3 – Good, 4 – Great, 5! – Must See)