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Film Review: Transcendence

Transcendence fails to rise above

The intersection of memory, morality and identity, meshed with themes of duality and deception, characterise the films of auteur director Christopher Nolan. That he is Executive Producer for ‘Transcendence’ is no surprise- his trademark existentialist, and ethical concepts invade this film like nanoparticles. Making his directorial debut with ‘Transcendence’, Willy Pfister, demonstrates how clearly he has uploaded Nolan’s attitude to silver screen storytelling during the years he worked as cinematographer on Nolan’s film projects. The result is a film that asks ‘The Big Questions about Life”, but fails to make us care about them.

We live in a world where today’s run-of-the-mill technology is the stuff of yesterday’s Science Fiction. Cellphones, laptops, Facebook, internet banking are a part of daily life – so a film that asks whether we should fear the power of technology, seems like a good idea.  If it also asks deep, philosophical questions, about AI (artificial intelligence) then it will surely, perfectly align with current concerns. However, although ‘Transcendence’ does construct a scenario where good tech goes bad, it fails to develop characters that the audience can connect to and care about.

Transcendence

In brief, the plot goes like this: Dr Will Caster, and his wife Evelyn are researching Artificial Intelligence (AI). They have created PINN (Physically Independent Neural Network), a massively powerful computer, and are in process of developing the next phase, a sentient mind, when Will is shot and dies. However before he dies, Evelyn manages to upload the content of Will’s mind into a computer. Within a short time, she has connected Will’s mind/computer to the internet and he/it begins to operate in strange and unsettling ways. The rise of the machine, Evelyn’s relationship with deus-ex-machina Will, and the fightback by the government and former terrorist group RIFT, is what occupies the bulk of ‘Transcendence’s’ two hour running time.

The cast list is impressive. ‘A’ list stars, like Johnny Depp (Dr Will Caster) and Morgan Freeman (Joseph Tagger) combine with shiny ascendant stars, like Kate Mara (Bree) and Rebecca Hall (Evelyn Caster), to populate the film with the potential for excellent performances. No one does a bad job, yet the end result is strangely unsatisfying, probably because of a feeble script in the hands of an inexperienced director. Rebecca Hall tries her best to act as if she is alongside the love of her life, but finds herself stymied by Depp being literally, and figuratively, very absent. As a RIFT terrorist Kate Mara has an uphill battle to win audience sympathy, as she and her ilk are initially portrayed as killers who then have to morph into saviours. Although Freeman never breaks out of the typecast role of father figure during this film, he does not protect or guide in any significant way in ‘Transcendence’.

Here’s what could be called a spoiler alert! Pfister tries to replicate the ambiguity of ‘Inception’s’ ending by having ‘Transcendence’ end with the suggestion that Will and Evelyn might transcend the limitations of human death. Maybe they will – I haven’t felt moved to ponder it, I must say! However, I don’t think ‘Transcendence’ will transcend the disjointed narrative, poorly defined characters and lacklustre critical reception. It’s not terrible, but it’s also not a film that stirs thought or emotion. Like the film’s recurring motif of a circuit board in a dreamcatcher sculpture, ‘Transcendence’ is interesting but ineffective.

Written by Elise Macadam

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