22 April 2014


There's no real way around the feeling that Transcendence is disappointingly Christopher Nolan-lite. The director may have made a whole bunch of "gritty" reboots of established properties feel like the vogue, with his acclaimed Dark Knight films, but far fewer filmmakers have tried to ape the intellectual blockbuster antics of 2010's Inception. But while the first directorial effort from Nolan's long-time cinematographer Wally Pfister may look just like one of his films, it's nothing like as deep or rewarding.

Transcendence here describes the point at which artificial intelligence surpasses the capacity of human intelligence, and Dr. Will Caster and his team are working towards this very point in their research. When radical, anti-technology terrorists perform an effective, drawn-out and painful assassination attempt on Will, his wife and lab partner Evelyn decides that the only way to save his life is to upload his mind into a computer system, and by so doing, achieving their goal.

The film's failings are its own, so I'm not going to put too much stress on the very prominent and unfavourable comparisons to Inception. For the sake of context though, Nolan's film succeeded in making a smart, engaging and philosophical actioner out of a plot that would have felt equally at home in a B-movie; namely, that thieves perform a heist on the mind of a sleeping mark. By comparison, Transcendence makes a B-movie out of an engaging philosophical premise, but has absolutely no self-awareness either.

There's a thematic debt to eXistenZ too, and to any number of sci-fi movies or supervillain origin stories in which scientists are corrupted by experimenting on themselves, but if Jack Paglen's script only appears to have an academic interest in its premise, then Pfister seems positively bored with it. It has a weirdly retrograde focus too, fumbling a second act rug-pull that makes Johnny Depp's computerised Will into more of an antagonist, by deciding that we're supposed to be rooting for the terrorists instead. Those cheeky, murderous, kidnapping terrorists.

Aside from the laughable philosophy of "neo-Luddism" that is dreamt up for RIFT, (Revolutionary Independence From Technology) they come flat-packaged as terrorists, and never really develop from there. The hypocrisy of these characters is apparent (and even commented upon by the scientist characters) from the minute they start using basic modern medical equipment, let alone faffing about with bullets laced with radiation as a method of murdering our protagonist.

Therefore the real problem with the film is that there's no real protagonist to focus on. Will isn't the main mover in his own salvation, and once he turns into a computer avatar, nobody picks up the slack. For a happy moment, it seems like it might go all Silent Running, with Rebecca Hall's Evelyn as the sole human custodian of the high-tech lab where Will musters his resources, but the character is too passive after Will becomes empowered.

Likewise, Paul Bettany plays a colleague of the Casters, who is Stockholm-syndromed into working with the thinly sketched terrorists with a quite inelegant shunt to two years later in the plot, but he's not drawn out enough for us to latch onto, either. Frequent Nolan players Morgan Freeman and Cillian Murphy are left with little to do, and the most obvious effect of the only active character being a face on a screen is that the performances all feel phoned in. It doesn't help that the script is utterly humourless- there's one joke, repeated twice, and it isn't funny either time- and even a cast of this calibre can't liven up the po-faced material.

Thanks to Transcendence, I now understand what Christopher Nolan's films must look like to people who don't like Christopher Nolan's films. As expected from a Wally Pfister production, it looks fairly marvellous, even if it feels like somebody threw way too much money at this. There's little else in the way of evidence of the calibre behind it, taking a premise like the technological singularity and getting distracted by questions like "Well, what would God make of compooters, eh?" The answers aren't nearly as provocative or thoughtful as either Paglen or Pfister think- they're just monotonous.

Transcendence is released in cinemas and IMAX screens nationwide from Friday.
If you've seen The Amazing Spider-Man 2, why not share your comments below? Random post-review teaser: I think X-Men: Days Of Future Past is gonna suck. Hope I'm wrong about that one too.

I'm Mark the mad prophet, and until next time, don't watch anything I wouldn't watch.

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