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Review: ‘Transcendence’ fascinates, but does it rise above the field?



Longtime cinematographer Wally Pfister is best known for his work with Christopher Nolan on seven films, including his “Dark Knight” trilogy, “Inception” and “Memento”, but with the release of “Transcendence” on Friday, April 18, the world will get a taste of him as a director. Pfister’s first gig as a helmer is an ambitious one.

(L-r) KATE MARA as Bree and PAUL BETTANY as Max Waters in Alcon Entertainment's sci-fi thriller "TRANSCENDENCE," a Warner Bros. Pictures release.
Courtesy of: Peter Mountain / © 2014 ALCON ENTERTAINMENT, LLC. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED

“Transcendence” is a sci-fi thriller that finds Johnny Depp, Rebecca Hall, Paul Bettany and Morgan Freeman as brilliant scientists leading the field of Artificial Intelligence and striving to create a self-aware machine that will wield the combined power of the collective intelligence of everything ever known, plus the full range of human emotion. Even as they forge ahead, a clandestine group of anti-technology extremists seek to undo Dr. Will Caster (Depp) and his colleagues by any means necessary. Their group, RIFT unwittingly enables Will to achieve his wildest dreams--being the subject of what he calls “transcendence.” With the members of RIFT quaking at the prospect of what they’ve unleashed, while Will’s wife and colleagues are left question the morality of what their work has brought to life.

The idea of man versus machine is by no means a novel one. Rather it is a hallmark of the sci-fi genre--”The Terminator”, “The Matrix”, “WarGames” and even “Christine” tackle this theme, so it can’t be said that the threat at the core of “Transcendence” is wholly original, but the idea of a man seeking to create a self-aware machine himself becoming a seemingly self-aware machine is a bit of the spin on the classic “Skynet is self-aware”-type scenario. Unlike most works--both book and film in the genre--”Transcendence” lacks the black and white distinction of good versus evil--yes, a power that knows everything, desires only to know more and can control the vast majority of all technology on Earth that becomes blinded by determination is not ideal, not even a little; but, this power is driven by a desire to help people and to change the world. Meanwhile, the force that stands against it--as Depp’s Will Caster points out, opposes technology for reasons of morality, but has no problem killing people. In this and the other what ifs the film gives us it is fascinating, and a bit mind-bending, both of which are key to an enjoyable sci-fi flick.

But, that’s not to say that “Transcendence” is without flaws, most notably, it suffers from some pacing issues, as interesting as what happens on screen often is, it does feel as if the mass of the film is exposition. This is a risk with any high-concept work, it’s a fine line to walk between giving the audience too much by way of explanation and atmosphere and giving them too little. “Transcendence” lingers a bit too long in demonstrating some items (the machine’s capacity for power and rapid learning ability) and too quickly flits away from others (the post-tech world the film opens on). Though it does suffer somewhat in this respect, on the whole, “Transcendence” is an engrossing experience, one that quite happily has some significant star power at work to carry it along.

Though viewers don’t get much physical action from Depp, who spends much of the film as a digital image, his voice carries more than enough motion to make the machine swing from empathetic to sinister and back again in a matter of seconds. Paul Bettany, meanwhile, acts as the film’s moral center and humanity, a man at once desperate to save his friend and resolved not to do the wrong thing for the right reasons. Kate Mara continues her meteoric rise to being a serious force in Hollywood with another layered performance that leaves viewers wanting more. And, as he is wont to do, Morgan Freeman is irrepressibly cool.

“Transcendence” is an accomplished, plenty enjoyable genre film, but it doesn’t ascend to high enough heights to eclipse the most notable of the works that have come before it. For the tech-fascinated, genre devotees and ponderous among us it offers up much to debate and contemplate.

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