When scientist Will Caster (Johnny Depp) is wounded by a ferocious anti-technology group and is terminally ill, his wife Evelyn (Rebecca Hall) and good friend Max Waters (Paul Bettany) connect his brain to the giant, advanced artificial intelligence computer Caster has built to download his mind in its entirety. But the downloaded intelligence begins to automatically acquire more and more resources, taking control of everyday life through its access to the global internet grid and amassing immense power over human life.
Review by Louise Keller:
With its themes of playing God as it explores the perils and promise of technology, Transcendence has all the audacity of Christopher Nolan's Inception, without the credibility. Nolan is executive producer here for cinematographer Wally Pfister's directing debut; they have worked together on Inception, Memento, Insomnia, Batman Begins, The Dark Knight and The Dark Knight Rises. Despite the always compelling presence of Johnny Depp and a sterling performance by Rebecca Hall, Transcendence feels like a bit of a cheat: it promises a stimulating philosophical debate on ethical questions but bombards us with smoke and mirrors in a plot that is incomprehensible.
After a short prologue, the film introduces us to the world of acclaimed scientist Will Caster (Depp), who works with his wife Evelyn (Hall) in pursuit of using sophisticated technology to heal, regenerate and make the world a better place. No-one would disagree that being able to cure ailments such as cancer and Alzheimer's is a good thing. The unforeseen 'terrorist' attacks on high-tech facilities result in Caster's radiation poisoning which prompts Evelyn to embark on a high-risk operation in which her husband's brain cells are replicated in the super computer. Sure, it worked when they tried it on a monkey.
There are intriguing elements as the correlation of the mind, soul and spirit are questions as artificial intelligence is allowed to build momentum and become an unstoppable force. But what about logic? And love? Just as Scarlett Johansson's Operating System in She becomes everything to Joaquim Phoenix, Depp, in his new virtual guise beyond the grave creates indestructible super-human hybrids intent on duplicating the ever-expanding particles and allowing the artificial intelligence to take over the world. Has the reconstructed Caster become the product of his artificial intelligence or has he retained his humanity? And what of his relationship with Evelyn? The scene when Evelyn discovers that Caster is able to read her thoughts and know her emotional responses is one of the film's most chilling.
Much of the action is confusing, even though on many levels, it is entertaining to watch. The plot loses its way at the end and Depp's presence eventually feels like a construct. Paul Bettany is a solid presence as Max, the scientist with a conscience who tries to keep Evelyn from 'losing herself' into the technological abyss, while Morgan Freeman is surprisingly stiff in a thankless role. Hall displays an appealing vulnerability as the woman who loves her husband obsessively and will go to any length to keep him.
Depp is ideally cast in the enigmatic role of Caster, whose memory might be easily retained, but the issue of his humanity questionable. The idea has potential but Jack Paglen's screenplay (his first) is flawed and Pfister's direction and storytelling ends up as a jumble of style over substance, leaving us feeling hoodwinked.
Review by Andrew L. Urban:
Science fiction at its best has always been exciting, whether in book form, in comics or on screen, by the sheer audacity of the writer's imagination through which we are shown strange yet recognisable new worlds, all conjured up by the magic spell, 'what if'. Writer Jack Paglan has 'what iffed' a great scenario in which a brilliant human brain is saved from death by transferring its contents of knowledge, ideas, memories .... But what about love? Well, that's Jack's point.
Superb performances from an A list cast make Transcendence - almost - credible, with Johnny Depp playing a unique duality of himself as Will Caster, the man and as the uploaded intelligence taking control. Rebecca Hall plays a wonderfully developed character as his devoted and clever wife, Evelyn and Paul Bettany builds layers of complexity into Max, their good friend and scientific colleague. Morgan Freeman is the solid éminence grise whose connections to Government are as valuable as his knowledge, while Kate Mara does well as the idealist anti-tech activist, Bree.
Cillian Murphy is rather thrown away as the FBI Agent Buchanan, but Clifton Collins Jr gets a chance to show his acting chops as a contractor out in the middle of nowhere, commissioned to build a giant facility that will house the new intelligence unit with its banks of solar panels above ground and computer grunt below. The dusty little desert township of Brightwood (crassly renamed on the signage as Blightwood by a local prankster) is a wonderful piece of cinematic creation - along with the rest of the production design.
That, together with Mychael Danna's effective, constantly changing score, gives the film a real edge and dynamic, despite the errors of judgement in the screenplay that manifest in the second half. The all-important digital fireworks are awesome in the real sense of the word, and all the technicals are flawless. (I wish I had filmmakers like this in-house to make my computers and other devices work so perfectly ...)
Fascinating as it is, Jack goes too far and builds a scenario that plays like a cross between mystical and magical, diluting the film's provenance; the risk with today's digital tools is that because anything is possible, nothing is impossible. That shifts our entire belief cinematic system: "of course it's possible on screen, but that's because of CGI".
Some serious flaws in judgement involve the treatment of Will Caster's post-transfer presence in the super-brain and later his reappearance for what is a problematic ending
The filmmakers try to have it both ways, surrendering to the power of love and hope, while recording the destruction of modern life.
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CAST: Johnny Depp, Rebecca Hall, Morgan Freeman, Kate Mara, Cillian Murphy, Paul Bettany, Cole Hauser, Clifton Collins Jr, Josh Stewart, Olivia Dudley
PRODUCER: Kate Cohen, Broderick Johnson, Andrew A. Kosove, Annie Marter, Marisa Polvino, Aaron Ryder, David Valdes
DIRECTOR: Wally Pfister
SCRIPT: Jack Paglen
CINEMATOGRAPHER: Jess Hall
EDITOR: David Rosenbloom
MUSIC: Mychael Danna
PRODUCTION DESIGN: Chris Seagers
RUNNING TIME: 119 minutes
AUSTRALIAN DISTRIBUTOR: Roadshow
AUSTRALIAN RELEASE: April 24, 2014