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On Review: 'Transcendence'

May 2, 2014

Editor's Note: This monthly installment of movie reviews by Spirit employees Matt Triponey and Dan Long rates Transcendence.

Plot: With her computer scientist husband, Will (Johnny Depp), facing imminent death, Dr. Evelyn Caster (Rebecca Hall) copies his mind into cyberspace. The end result brings great advancement to the world but also poses a tremendous threat to humanity.

"Well, that was stupid,” was my first thought whenever the credits finally rolled on Transcendence.

The sci-fi flick starring Johnny Depp will stand as yet another flub in the actor’s recent streak of terrible films.

With a title like Transcendence, I was expecting a cerebral sci-fi thriller that was going to provide a deep analysis of the mind, the human condition, or even society.

It delivered on none of those.

Despite the film tossing around terms like singularity, consciousness and self awareness, it is not an intelligent movie.

The flashy sci-fi overtone cannot make up for a lazy plot that is not the slightest bit intelligent, and only gets dumber as the film progresses.

All the classic clichés are there of a film that shows the danger of advanced technology and artificial intelligence, and nothing new is really brought to the table. What starts out as an interesting idea at the beginning of the film turns to sci-fi clichés by the end.

The plot ends up becoming very straightforward as the scenarios and circumstances become even more and more ridiculous.

Johnny Depp’s character, Dr. Will Caster, gets shot so early in the film that no real background story can be given, nor was there enough time to develop a relationship between him and his wife, Evelyn.

This is a notable issue because Transcendence greatly hinges on the relationship throughout its duration, but it’s hard to feel any emotional connection to the characters when Depp is turned into his artificial self so early in the film that you feel like you hardly even saw Dr. Caster in his “true” form.

Transcendence also suffers because it is a muddled and confusing mess to follow who the antagonist is as the film progresses, but I won’t ruin what happens, even though it’s not technically a plot twist.

Perhaps the most disappointing aspect about Transcendence is that its lineup is wasted from top to bottom. Morgan Freeman and Kate Mara both had throwaway roles and did not provide much support to the lead characters.

Hall was really the only one who had to put her acting chops to the test, and she did a decent job.

Paul Bettany, who played Max Waters, suffered a similar problem to Hall’s character, as his friendship and compassion for Dr. Caster could not be truly exemplified due to a lack of a relationship established.

For Depp, a majority of his scenes are simply voiceovers or a video of him on a screen. He never had to convey any real emotion, so it is difficult to understand why a role such as this was wasted on Johnny Depp.

Transcendence was Wally Pfister’s first time sitting in the director’s chair, and it was wildly unsuccessful. Better luck next time, Wally.

Rating out of 5: 1

DVD Recommendations of the Month: Instead of going to see Transcendence, rent Philomena from Redbox. Judi Dench’s performance in the film is so good that I lost even more faith in the Academy Awards this year when she did not win Best Actress.

Another interesting film everyone should check out is Mary and Max (2009) on Netflix. It’s a sad tale of two pen pals that demonstrates that claymation should not be limited to just children’s films, and it is also one of Philip Seymour Hoffman’s most underrated roles.

For more things from Dan Long, like Dan Long Comedy on Facebook.

— Dan Long

* * *
I genuinely wanted to enjoy Transcendence.

After all, I've been a lifelong fan of science fiction in all of its iterations, and Transcendence is unique in the current climate, being both hard sci-fi and, most importantly, not based on any pre-existing properties.

Plus, I was intrigued to see what Academy Award-winning cinematographer Wally Pfister would accomplish his first time in the director's chair.
But I didn't.

And I think the hardest part of that is the fact that this movie is only a handful of touch-ups away from being good.

The outline of a great story is here — unfortunately, it's an outline that only includes the major beats and forgets to fill out the in-between with human emotion.

As technological fables go, Transcendence had the potential to be a relevant one. Do some research into the technology at the heart of this story — placing an exact copy of the human mind into a computer.

Not only are there actual fields in which this is being studied, it's considered by some scientists to be an inevitable reality of the relatively near future. The possibility raises endless questions, and they're worth exploring.

But when you're writing speculative science fiction like this, you have to be careful how many arbitrary rules and events and abilities you impress upon the world you've created. Put enough of them in there, and they'll devalue the questions being asked. Transcendence suffers greatly from this.

The trick in coming up with this sci-fi premise and exploring it meaningfully is to place it into a setting roughly approximating the real world and then to dive into its implications, making everything that happens within the story seem inevitable.

To tell a story of the potential perils of unchecked technological advancement, you have to be convincing in making your case that what happens by the end is the absolutely inescapable end result of the scenario itself.

Throw too much arbitrariness in there, however, and it leaves audiences with an escape hatch. And then, instead of walking out of the theater pondering their values and desires, they walk out thinking about the extraneous details.

(As a brief aside, I have also seen people reading a religious metaphor into the story. This is both valid and perhaps a more cohesive take on the movie's thematic material, but it's cursory at best, invoked as vague metaphor rather than a front-and-center idea that truly explores the way humanity and religion intersect.)

The issue with Transcendence, ultimately, is that it regularly undoes its own message in trying to make its story get to a pre-determined endpoint without too much fuss.

It could still work independently as a story, of course, but unfortunately, most of it hinges on a central romance that's stale and uninvolving.

The rest of it gets drowned in flat characters and vague motivations and a general lack of emotional detail.

As you might expect, though, it definitely looks very good.

Rating out of 5: 2

DVD Recommendation of the Month: The back end of last year's crop of Oscar nominees is still hitting home media, and the level of quality is definitely higher than it's been in previous years.

Most recently, we've added Dallas Buyers Club, which is quite worthwhile if a touch unspectacular on the whole, and Philomena, which I found to be surprisingly charming and funny.

For something a little more under-the-radar, check out The Past, director Asghar Farhadi's worthy if slightly inferior followup to his 2011 masterpiece A Separation.

It's also worth mentioning that the Coen Brothers classic Fargo, one of my favorite films of theirs, saw a Blu-Ray re-release last month.

For more from Matt, check out his website, http://writersblockparade.wordpress.com.

— Matt Triponey

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