Transcendence (Warner Brothers Pictures, PG-13)

Transcendence 75

It wouldn’t take much to turn this into a good film, but as it is, it’s too boring and dumb to tolerate.

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There are plenty of reasons to be interested in Transcendence. It has a timely sci-fi premise, the cast is very solid, and it’s the directorial debut of Wally Pfister, formerly one of the best cinematographers around. Pfister shot every Christopher Nolan film from Memento on, and Nolan is a producer on this film. All the ingredients are there for a great movie. Unfortunately, it seems that someone didn’t have any measuring cups, so they just threw those ingredients in a pot, resulting in a disappointing mess.

Johnny Depp plays Dr. Will Caster, a scientist trying to make advances in artificial intelligence. When an anti-technology terrorist group shoots him with a poison bullet, his wife (Rebecca Hall) decides to upload his consciousness into a high power computer. Surprisingly, this works, but unsurprisingly things don’t go well from there.

I have to say up front, I was never really engaged with this film, but I respect that so much time is devoted to character. Honestly, I think I’m done with Johnny Depp, but luckily, he isn’t the real star of this film. Rebecca Hall is the true lead, and she gives it her all. What few moments of emotional connection I had were all because of her. I like how central their relationship is to the story, even if it never quite clicked for me.

I also appreciated the subdued tone of the first hour. The premise never stops feeling silly, but they take it seriously, and for a long time this feels like more of a hard sci-fi film from the seventies than a typical Hollywood actioner. But then everything goes wrong. There’s some legitimate threat to a sentient super computer that can access every piece of technology on the planet, but because this is a movie, the filmmakers feel the need to expand the threat, and that’s when this movie goes from kind of charmingly silly to full-on moronic. The second half is unbelievably stupid, and it’s not just one thing. Every plot development is dumber than the last. I could forgive the slowness of the first hour because I hoped it was building to something great, but in retrospect, it’s just a boring lead up to one of the dumbest movies I’ve seen in a long time.

It would be easy to compare Transcendence to an early nineties film like Lawnmower Man (it is almost the same movie) but it really suffers in the shadow of two much more recent films. One is The World’s End. I can’t get into specifics without spoiling both films, but I’ll just say that Edgar Wright’s comedy handles some very similar sci-fi themes in a much better way. The more important comparison is to Her. The melodramatic relationship between Hall and Depp suffers greatly compared to the much more compelling human/AI relationship in that film, but there’s an even more fundamental problem. Her is a special movie in that it has a very positive view of technology. The idea of advanced artificial intelligence in that film is treated with wonder and excitement, and it makes this technophobic killer computer story feel very old fashioned.

I feel bad picking on this movie because its heart is in the right place, and in theory, it does a lot of things right. The blame has to go to the inexperienced director and a first time writer. Inception isn’t the most logically sound movie, but it’s so well crafted and so energetic that you never stop to think about it. Wally Pfister was an integral part of that success, but it doesn’t transfer to this film, which just lays there on the screen, moving so slowly that you have no choice but to question what you are seeing. It wouldn’t take much to turn this into a good film, but as it is, it’s too boring and dumb to tolerate. | Sean Lass

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