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'Transcendence' assumes too much, delivers too little



Someone much more intelligent than all of us once coined the phrase, “Those who assume make an ass out of you and me.” Transcendence, the new science fiction action flick starring Johnny Depp, does just that. The film, directed by renowned cinematographer Wally Pfister, introduces the audience to Dr. Will Caster (Depp), a character seemingly based on real-life scientist Ray Kurzweil,=. The film starts out on the day of a conference in which Dr. Caster and colleagues will announce their grand scientific goals to the public, in order to secure funding. This conference shows us glimpses of real science including artificial intelligence, nanotechnology, singularity, and stem cell research. Unfortunately, there is little substance to the characters’ monologues. A person in the audience brings up the ginormous, obvious elephant in the room and asks Caster if he is trying to create a God. Depp’s Caster responds with the too-alarming-for-anyone-to-notice-comment “Isn’t that what man has been trying to do all along?” It should come as no surprise to the viewer that this pissed off man fires a bullet laced with radiation at Caster in the next scene. This action sets up the film’s premise, which is loosely based on the science of Ray Kurzweil. Rebecca Hall plays Caster’s wife and decides she wants to upload Caster’s mind to their A.I. mainframe. From there, all hell breaks loose. Unfortunately, Jack Paglen’s script would rather ask the viewer to buy in to a lot of philosophical nonsense, rather than actually display or explain the science the film is based on.
As science has advanced, so has the science fiction genre. We now have a sub-genre comprised of “realistic” science fiction. These are films that usually take place in the “not-too-distant” future and present real science and show us fictional representations of worst case scenarios or how society deals with said science. There is no better example of this, in the eyes of this examiner, than Robert Zemeckis’ Contact (1997). Based on the science of famed astronomer, Carl Sagan, the film set the bar for what realistic science fiction was capable of. The film presents real science, explains it in a way the audience can understand, and delivers a powerful story about how power, politics, and society are affected by it.
As Transcendence plays out, there are so many moments where the characters could have used real scientific theories to back up the craziness that we were seeing. Unfortunately, Pfister and Paglen ask the viewer to just accept what they see and not ask questions. The result is a beautifully shot film with cool effects, a stellar cast with nothing to do, and absolutely no substance. In the end, Transcendence could not transcend boredom, and left this examiner feeling like an ass.

Transcendence is in theaters now
Warner Bros.