The dual-review film criticism site: first a spoiler-free review, then an in-depth Alternate Take.

Reviewed by Matt Denny.

Director Wally Pfister
Length 119 mins
Certificate 12A / PG-13
Rating *******---
Filmmaking: 4  Personal enjoyment: 3

Photo from the article Transcendence is a film of very big ideas, a beautifully crafted science-fiction picture of impressive ambition and scope. It also has a fatal flaw: it’s rather dull. This is perhaps an unfair criticism to level at the film, one owing more to expectations of what a big budget sci-fi blockbuster should be rather than the type of film Transcendence is trying to be. It’s something of a truism that the contemporary blockbuster is a generic hybrid, with action more often than not a key ingredient in the mix. Transcendence appears to be eschewing action in favour of ideas, but I’d argue this is to its detriment. Perhaps a better point of comparison would be 2001: A Space Odyssey or the smaller Moon, both films closer to hard SF and primarily about ideas. Unfortunately Transcendence lacks the awe-inspiring spectacle of 2001 and is considerably more po-faced than the charming and affecting Moon. In spite of this nagging feeling of lack (which may entirely depend upon on this reviewers preconceptions) Transcendence remains a compelling film.

The plot revolves around the creation of A.I., achieved when the consciousness of dying super-star scientist Will Caster (Johnny Depp) is used as the basis of a supercomputer by collaborator and wife Evelyn (Rebecca Hall). The remainder of the film progress like a beautifully written essay exploring the morality of scientific progress; the ethical and practical concerns of creating artificial intelligence; and how we define selfhood. However, it is the film’s parallel focus on love, loss, and grief that I find most intriguing. This is due in no small part to Hall’s superb performance, doing a tremendous job in bringing some humanity to what would otherwise be an exceptionally cold film. Given Depp’s (necessarily) inhuman and detached performance and the sadly interchangeable nature of Paul Bettany, Morgan Freeman, and Cillian Murphy’s supporting roles the emotional touchstone provided by Hall becomes even more important.

Evelyn’s relationship with the Godlike computerised-Will is fascinating, and more satisfying for the (albeit brief) amount of time dedicated to establishing Evelyn’s love for Will prior to his death and (possible) rebirth as computer program. It’s difficult to describe how this relationship develops without revealing too much. Suffice it to say that as Will grows in power he takes on something of a Bluebeard quality, with Evelyn wilfully trapped in a house full of secrets. The strength of Transcendence in this area very nearly makes up for its weaknesses elsewhere, and prompts me to consider whether the film is more satisfying as a kind of technological ghost story than as more straight forward sci-fi. This is a possibility I will explore in more detail in my alternate take.

Ultimately, Transcendence is one of those films that are more enjoyable once you’ve left the cinema and had time to think through its intricacies than it is to actually watch. It is nevertheless a film that sticks in the mind and demands its ideas be dwelt upon and interrogated - even if it isn’t particularly thrilling.

Alternate Take to follow soon...

This review was published on May 12, 2014.

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