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Blu-ray Review: 'Transcendence'

Johnny Depp in "Transcendence"
Johnny Depp in "Transcendence"
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The Film:

Wally Pfister has made a name for himself as Christopher Nolan’s go-to director of photography, working on a multitude of amazing projects that have included “The Prestige,” “The Dark Knight,” and “Inception,” which he took home an Oscar for. This makes it no surprise that he has decided to stretch his abilities into the field of directing, choosing as his first project an ambitious techno-thriller called “Transcendence.” The story involves Will Caster (Johnny Depp), who is a leader in the field of artificial intelligence. His work on creating a sentient machine has caused outrage from an anti-technology group, leading them to make an attempt on his life. He survives the initial shooting, but is given just a month to live after it is discovered that the bullet has given him radiation poisoning.

In her desperation, his wife Evelyn (Rebecca Hall) suggests trying to upload his brain to a supercomputer that he had been working on. With the help of fellow scientists Max (Paul Bettany) and Joseph (Morgan Freeman), this seemingly-impossible task is completed. After the same anti-technology group attempts to stop them, Evelyn quickly connects Will to the internet, giving him practically unlimited space to expand. It is decided that the best thing to do would be to lay low in a nearly-deserted town where he can continue his work, but as everyone soon discovers, Will isn’t quite himself anymore. In fact, his rapid change even begins to elicit fear from those who knew him best, people who begin to agree that perhaps allowing Will free reign on the internet was not the best of ideas.

“Transcendence” was certainly an ambitious project, filled with fascinating ideas that try to explore what we can accomplish with technology and what the limitations should be. It’s a film that wants to explore those ideas in an intelligent and engaging manner, but after the initial setup, it appears as though screenwriter Jack Paglen didn’t really know where to go with it. The idea of putting a human consciousness into a computer is an incredible gateway to what could be an extraordinary story, but Paglen seems far less interested in telling a story of that nature than he is in turning this into a sappier take on the material by focusing on the relationship between Will and his wife. He wants to have us sympathize with her, but it’s something that’s rather hard to do given that she’s the one that allowed this to happen in the first place. Adding to its problems is the silliness of the latter half of the film where Will creates nanotechnology to create his own little army of workers who he has healed in one way or another. This all leads up to an ending that will leave many scratching their heads, and this isn’t even counting the ending that is ruined in the opening scenes of the film.

For Pfister’s first project, he shows just as much talent as he does when he’s controlling the camera, but ultimately he’s let down by poor writing. There are some thrilling ideas here to explore, ones that could have made for a very engaging story, but unfortunately “Transcendence” doesn’t put them to their optimal use, instead settling for a tale that spins more out of control as it goes along. There’s a lot to admire here in the foundation, but it just goes to show that a strong foundation won’t prevent mistakes from being made later on.

Video/Audio:

“Transcendence” arrives on Blu-ray in a 2.4:1 transfer of incredible quality. The picture is perfectly sharp throughout the entire two-hour runtime, allowing you to see every little detail of this special effects-filled film. The 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio is also top-notch, presenting all sounds from dialogue to score in great quality. Overall, the film has been given outstanding treatment that could hardly be better.

Special Features:

  • What is Transcendence?
  • Wally Pfister: A Singular Vision
  • Guarding the Threat
  • The Promise of A.I.

Here was a great chance to allow Pfister to do a feature commentary, especially given that it’s his first directing gig. Unfortunately, what we get instead are four featurettes that are incredibly brief (most of them run about two minutes) and very superficial, featuring tiny snippets of interviews with the cast and crew that don’t tell you very much. It’s sad to say, but all of them are easily skippable.

Conclusion:

While “Transcendence” starts out with a fascinating premise, it loses its way pretty quickly by turning into a sappy and ultimately silly film that isn’t able to capitalize on the lofty ideas contained within. Hopefully this little setback won’t discourage Pfister from trying his hand at directing again. If he should manage to get ahold of the right screenplay, something truly magical could happen. Having worked so many years under the best director working today, he’s bound to have learned a thing or two, which will make it all the more exciting when he comes across better material. Until then, we’ll simply have to hope that he transcends his initial outing as he moves forward.

Score: 2.5/5

Available on Blu-ray and DVD starting tomorrow.

Recent Blu-ray/DVD releases: Rio 2, Under the Skin, Open Grave, Deadly Eyes, Jodorowsky's Dune, Lake Placid, Nymphomaniac, Afflicted, House of Cards: Season Two, The Lego Movie, Ernest & Celestine, 13 Sins, Joe, Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit, Tim's Vermeer, Alan Partridge, RoboCop (2014), Alexander: The Ultimate Cut, Ravenous, Son of God, The Rodgers & Hammerstein Collection, Stalingrad, The Monuments Men, Pompeii

Now playing in theaters: How to Train Your Dragon 2, The Amazing Spider-Man 2, Captain America: The Winter Soldier

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