Plot: Dr. Will Caster (Johnny Depp) is close to perfecting the most advanced artificial intelligence computer ever created. But when a terrorist organization known as RIFT shoots Caster, he’s only given five weeks to live. With the fear of losing her husband, Caster’s partner and wife (Rebecca Hall) uploads Caster’s consciousness into a computer. As Caster becomes more advanced, his power could threaten all of humanity.
I always appreciate when a film strives for a high concept sci-fi driven idea like Transcendence does. While it’s a tired plot, I’m always a sucker for “technology is evil” storylines. At the same time though, I can’t hand out participation ribbons just for aiming high, because that would make films like The Terminator, The Matrix, and Inception less special. While I admire what Transcendence is trying to achieve, and I do believe there’s plenty of positives to take out of it, the second half is just too muddled to really appreciate what the filmmakers were trying to accomplish. This was particularly disappointing as the director for this was Wally Pfister, Christopher Nolan’s cinematographer on almost all his previous films. While Pfister’s direction is certainly inconsistent, we have to start with the performances.
To say that Johnny Depp has a rabid fan base would be an understatement. Film fans absolutely fawn over this guy. While he did some remarkable work early in his career, if you look at Depp’s IMDB, you’re going to find his last truly great performance was Finding Neverland in 2004. Since then it’s been voiceovers, crazy make-up, and painfully bland performances (Public Enemies, anyone?). In Transcendence, Depp is a mixed bag. While we don’t see him very much in the flesh, the performance before his character dies is completely bland and cold. While this works in spades when Depp plays the character as a machine, it doesn’t have the effect the movie intends because we never cared or sympathized with Caster before his death. I get it. He’s a scientist, and he’s supposed to be cold, but instead of coming off as purely analytical, he’s just boring. Even in moments where he’s supposed to be funny and lighthearted, Depp is not only wooden, but actually bad. I hate to dog pile on the guy, because I know a lot of people love him, but that’s just how I feel. I give him credit for playing the calculating computer very well, but Depp has lost the ability to play a regular human being, and the movie suffers drastically because of it.
The one performance that completely saves this film, and the reason I got a lot of positives out of it was Rebecca Hall as Caster’s wife and colleague, Evelyn. Hall is really coming into her own as an actress, and she’s so good here, that she almost makes up for Depp’s emotionless performance. The marriage between her Caster is essential to the story, and where the heart of the film truly is. Hall carries this weight all by herself. We sympathize with her, as she struggles back and forth between supporting the machine she still believes is her husband, and realizing the imminent danger he may cause.
The other two performances that stood out were Cillian Murphy and Kate Mara. Murphy doesn’t get a whole lot to do as a government agent, but he’s always a delight. Mara is definitely a big up and coming actress, and she probably gives my second favorite performance. As the leader of RIFT, her motivations are clear and understandable. She also exacerbates just how bad Depp’s pre-machine acting was. Both characters are cold and calculating, but with Mara, there’s still strong emotion with her acting, and you completely get the character. With Depp, I had no idea what this guy was all about.
The other two actors of note were Morgan Freeman and Paul Bettany. I hate to say it, but Freeman sleepwalks through this one. We all love Morgan Freeman, but he didn’t want to be here. Even in sleepwalking though, Freeman is still really good. Much like Depp, Bettany was also a mixed bag. As Caster’s best friend and right hand man, there are certainly moments he engages you, especially at the beginning and end of the film. But for an actor who is touted as charismatic, it’s just not there. There’s one scene in particular where Evelyn and Bettany’s character Max are at the hospital. Max is told that all over the country his company’s headquarters have been hit, and employees have been killed. Bettany looks away from the camera and almost doesn’t care. This is also right after his best friend has been shot. I’m sorry, but can you emote just a little, please?
To be fair, you can’t always blame the actors, and this is where it’s time to criticize the director. As a previous cinematographer, Pfister certainly delivers some very powerful imagery, but the story just isn’t constructed very well. The first act is pretty bland, but once Caster is uploaded into the computer, there is a half-hour stretch where the film is actually pretty damn good. I like how creepy Caster first sounds as the machine, and I like the conflict that develops between Evelyn and Max over this new technology. They also introduce some cool ideas as Caster’s power develops. There comes a point in the second half though where character motivations become a complete mess, and the pacing is all over the place. I very much like what the overall endgame for Caster was, but it happens so abruptly, and almost makes the entire movie pointless.
Transcendence isn’t completely incomprehensible, and I love a lot of the ideas they touch on, but this is a movie you can watch on Netflix. If it weren’t for Rebecca Hall’s performance, I’d be rating this a lot lower. For a first time director, it’s an admirable effort. Pfister showed some promise, and I hope he gets another chance to direct. I’ll give him another look.
Rating: 6.5 out of 10 (Slightly Better than ‘Meh’)