Review: 'Transcendence' has unrealized potential

Posted at 04/25/14 11:54 AM

The brilliant Artificial Intelligence-scientist Dr. Will Caster was shot with a bullet laced with a radioactive poison. As Dr. Will slowly dies, his wife Evelyn hits upon the idea of uploading the contents of his brain as digital data into the Internet. He has achieved his dream of "transcendence" -- an all-powerful super-computer with his brilliant mind. Dr. Will was then able to build his own advanced research complex where he basically played God. When this reached a point when he was already controlling human wills, Evelyn herself began to question the soundness and morality of Will's radical concepts.

Johnny Depp is prominently billed as the lead actor in this film as Dr. Will Caster. However in actuality, he is not actually present as a flesh and blood human character for the majority of the film. Most of his screen time was a disembodied face on a computer screen, which of course limits his acting options. His casting though brings some good will and humanity into a character which would have come across as totally evil and egomaniacal if done by another actor. Depp is coming from two box office disappointments, namely "Dark Shadows" and "The Lone Ranger." I do not think this film will be his redemption.

Rebecca Hall has an unconventional smart beauty which makes her convincing as Evelyn Caster, a computer scientist who was completely devoted to her husband. It is her conflict of trust and loyalty which is the main heart of the film.

Paul Bettany is again in one of those offbeat roles of his, this time as Max Waters, the Caster's best friend and colleague with conflicting ethical concerns. Morgan Freeman is also here as a more senior AI scientist working with the FBI. Cillian Murphy is wasted in an inconsequential role as an FBI agent investigating Caster's case.

The concept behind "Transcendence" is admirably complex as it delves into prickly issues of man vs. machine and the controversial ethics of artificial intelligence. However, the execution of the ambitious script by Jack Paglen suffered somewhat in the hands of first-time director Wally Pfister.

Pfister was the long-time cinematographer of ace director Christopher Nolan. Pfister's outstanding eye for beautiful imagery is obviously apparent. But the way Pfister told the story is much too slow and lethargic for me.

I was very interested with the story, the science and the ethical issues involved. I was intrigued with the medical miracles that AI could do, and hoped they can be possible in real life, without the consequences in the film. However I was bored by the lifeless build up en route to the final conflict. There was so much tedious exposition in computer jargon that tend not to make complete sense to most laymen. I imagine this film could have been done a lot better in more experienced hands. The potential for greatness was definitely there. Unfortunately, this was not completely realized in the final product. 5/10

This review was originally published in the author's blog, "Fred Said."