"Transcendence" was one of my most anticipated films of 2014. It's the directing debut of Christopher Nolan's longtime cinematographer Wally Pfister, stars Johnny Depp and Paul Bettany, and features an original science-fiction script that made it onto a recent edition of the Black List. And while it's clearly a very flawed piece of work, "Transcendence" didn't disappoint me in the slightest. I think that the overwhelmingly negative reactions I've seen can be chalked up to a couple of things, the most obvious being a major case of mismatched expectations. From the names involved and the intriguing premise, everyone went in expecting a cerebral action film, or possibly some sort of loftier hard science-fiction drama. Instead, "Transcendence" is better characterized as a modern-day retelling of "Dracula," one part monster movie and one part romantic melodrama.
Johnny Depp's Dr. Will Caster may be on all the posters as a dying man who uploads and merges himself with an artificial intelligence, but the film's protagonist is clearly Evelyn Caster (Rebecca Hall), Will's loving wife. She is the one who must grapple most directly with the question of whether the new AI really is her husband, or if the entity is simply using his data to mimic him for its own sinister purposes. We first meet the Casters as they are working to achieve the technological singularity or "transcendence," which attracts the attention of an extreme anti-technology activist group RIFT, led by the grim-faced Bree (Kate Mara). When Will falls victim to one of their attacks, Evelyn and their friend Max (Paul Bettany) help create the AI Will Caster. Max is our other POV character, who realizes the destructive potential of the new AI creation, and that though RIFT's tactics are heinous, their fears are not unfounded.
"Transcendence" certainly looks the part of a big-budget action movie, with its copious use of CGI effects, impressive action set-pieces, and a narrative that builds up to a big clash between two well-armed opposing forces. However, action fans are likely to become bored with the slower stretches dealing with Will and Evelyn's relationship, and all the talk about the ethics of AI. It's also apparent immediately that the science in this science-fiction story is mostly technobabble. We see the AI Will Caster accomplish some completely ludicrous feats, supposedly thanks to his control of advanced nanomachines. It's really more akin to him having supernatural powers, and "Transcendence" works better if you think of the AI as an analogue of a demon or a ghost, slowly gaining influence and amassing power as it finds a foothold in the physical world. The trouble is that "Transcendence" isn't interested in being a horror film, which probably would have served the premise better. Instead, it's far more preoccupied with visual spectacle, constantly showing off beautifully designed environments and neat little graphic concepts.
And the spectacle is certainly impressive. If you're a fan of Pfister's work on the Nolan films, he's certainly working up to his usual standard here. The integration of the effects is particularly impressive. The AI Will Caster eventually builds himself a laboratory that functions like a giant iPad, allowing him to project his image on any surface. His interactions with Evelyn are fascinating, as the AI tries to approximate the human Will but keeps being thwarted by its unnerving, casual omnipresence. I think the film would have worked better if the scope of the story were smaller and more intimate, perhaps cutting out the heavy-handed apocalypse storyline completely and simply exploring the changed relationship. The apocalypse is where the bulk of the film's problems lie, where there are the most noticeable storytelling problems and logic leaps. The core of more personal, philosophical film about AI is established pretty well here, but the typical action movie folderol isn't set up well, so it comes across half-hearted, and just feels like a distraction.
With the basic construction of "Transcendence" in such a bad state, there's not much that any of the actors could do to mitigate the damage. They all try their best, including Johnny Depp, who has been accused of phoning in his performance, but I found he did a very good job of getting across the eerie ambiguity of the AI, which always speaks in a low, soothing tone, and uses images of Will to represent itself that tend to look a little too glossy and perfect. Rebecca Hall hasn't gotten nearly enough credit for her work as the conflicted Evelyn, who sells her character's unusual state of mind and personal dilemma. All the other characters, sadly, are too underdeveloped to say much about, including a federal agent played by Cillian Murphy and a colleague of Will's played by Morgan Freeman. I was especially disappointed that Kate Mara's domestic terrorist got so little to do beyond monologuing about the dangers of giving the machines too much power over humanity. The section of the film featuring her and Paul Bettany clearly didn't get as much attention as the rest, and it shows.
Still, "Transcendence" has a lot of strong elements and I admire Wally Pfister's ambition and commitment. I think he shows a lot of promise as a filmmaker and his first directorial effort is certainly worth seeing. The film is a mess, but it's a beautiful mess, and more importantly an interesting mess. And those are always more worthwhile than the merely competent mediocrities.