Friday, April 18, 2014

Transcendence


TRANSCENDENCE: Johnny Depp, Rebecca Hall, Paul Bettany, Morgan Freeman, directed by Wally Pfister (119 min.)

Transcendence is a confused and muddled film with big ideas at the beginning, big ideas which are systematically taken apart step by step thanks to a weak script and illogical behavior from central characters.  This ultimately derails everything.  The actors involved give it their all, I suppose, but the screenplay pours water all over their performances.  Here is a sci-fi thriller with no faith in its own ideas and no energy.  At the heart of everything lies an interesting premise: what happens when technology and humanity ultimately meld together?  What would be the implications of such a thing, where self awareness was not a mutually exclusive idea to the human race, and computers and the internet were able to achieve self awareness?  In the hands of a competent film, these ideas with this plot could go places.  But, alas, we are not given the tools to carry these theories anywhere interesting.

Johnny Depp is the star I suppose, although he spends the majority of the picture inside a computer and on a screen.  He is Dr. Will Caster, a brilliant scientist, and he is working on a supercomputer that is dangerously close to becoming self aware, the one element of human consciousness which separates us from everything else.  His wife, Evelyn, is played by Rebecca Hall.  Evelyn is brilliant in her own right, and believes in Will's work.  The opening act features Will giving a speech at a California science convention where he discusses artificial intelligence in some droning and uninteresting dialogue that seems cobbled together from other movies.  After the speech, Will is shot in the lobby at the same time computer labs across the country are blown up.  While the bullet does so little damage that Will is able to get out of the hospital and walk into his office hours later, it turns out that the bullet is laced with radiation which begins poisoning Will and will soon kill him.

The bullet was fired by a member of R.I.F.T. (Revolutionary Independence From Technology), a rogue group of militant anti-tech people, led by Bree (Kate Mara).  Well, Bree seems to be the only one we get to know, so I suppose she's a leader of some sorts.  This sure seems like a ragtag unit, which leads me to their assault on computer labs across the country… how?  They can't even manage to have a proper secret hiding place throughout the film, yet they can simultaneously infiltrate secure laboratories and blow them up?  I am digressing into the illogical aspects of the picture, and if I do that we will be here all night.  So let's move on.

Evelyn has a great idea.  She plans to upload Will into his own supercomputer and put him online so he can live after his body dies.  The plan is so hair brained that I can't imagine even the most layman individual thinking it is a good idea, regardless of the emotional connection.  Evelyn and Will's friend, Max, played by the always milquetoast Paul Bettany, realizes the implications of such an endeavor.  But here is this brilliant scientist, risking the fate of humanity on uploading her husband to a computer so she can hang out with him forever.  Either way it happens, and Will is uploaded to the internet, so his mind apparently encompasses everything.  Literally, everything, so that alone should end the film.  But no, Will has Evelyn move out to a dying desert town where they build an expansive field of solar panels and an underground computer lab.  That's right…

In this underground lab, Will - or the computer version of Will - figures out how to restore plants and cure broken bones and illnesses, with a catch.  All of the people he ends up healing are linked into his brain and… forget it.  The FBI, represented by Cillian Murphy in a wasted role, and another scientist, played by Morgan Freeman in a role that didn't even need to exist, employ the military to come out and stop Will and his healing and creation of a new God, or whatever.  What Will is doing with this ethnology seems harmless and, to be honest, helpful to humanity.  But it doesn't really matter because the logic in the story is absent.  The clear dangers of this whole undertaking are completely obvious to everyone except Rebecca Hall's Evelyn.  And then, the ultimate answer to curing everything is to basically end humanity?  By this time I had stopped caring.

In my opinion, there are two very important elements to a successful sic-fi film.  1) Believe in the idea, and 2) make certain the characters act logically in the face of the illogical.  Most sic-fi films dip their toe in the illogical, and as long as the characters in the story handle this lack of sense with a very firm conviction and dedication to the logical, the picture works.  Transcendence has neither of these things.  Logic abandons the thesis of the picture for sure, but it even leaves very basic, very simple moments in the film.  The whole thing unravels from one scene to the next, and the weak screenplay falls apart at the seams with every word.  Wally Pfister, who is a fantastic cinematographer, loses sight of anything interesting or worth our time in his debut directorial feature.  What a wasted opportunity, and what a waste of two hours in the theater.

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