– for sci-fi action and violence, some bloody images, brief strong language and sensuality.
Director: Wally Pfister
Starring: Johnny Depp, Rebecca Hall, Morgan Freeman, Cillian Murphy, Paul Bettany, Kate Mara, Clifton Collins Jr.
Running Time: 1 hour, 59 minutes
Theatrical Release Date: April 18, 2014
Blu-Ray Release Date: July 22, 2014 (Amazon.com)
In “Transcendence,” Dr. Will Caster (Johnny Depp) is the foremost researcher in the field of artificial intelligence, working to create a sentient machine that combines the collective intelligence of everything ever known with the full range of human emotions. His highly controversial experiments have made him famous, but they have also made him the prime target of anti-technology extremists who will do whatever it takes to stop him.
However, in their attempt to destroy Will, they inadvertently become the catalyst for him to succeed-to be a participant in his own transcendence. For his wife Evelyn (Rebecca Hall) and best friend Max Waters (Paul Bettany), both fellow researchers, the question is not if they can…but if they should.
Their worst fears are realized as Will’s thirst for knowledge evolves into a seemingly omnipresent quest for power, to what end is unknown. The only thing that is becoming terrifyingly clear is there may be no way to stop him.
(from Warner Bros.)
As technology and computers have evolved over time, so have the speculative science fiction stories that examine the possibilities and impact of such technologies on our society. Whether it’s about how computers could take over and manipulate whole civilizations, like in the original Star Trek TV series, or how kids could use the technology to soar into space in a pile of junkyard treasures in 1985’s Explorers, or even how a computer hacker could be sucked into a video game, like in TRON, it’s been a topic of some great entertainment for decades. First-time director Wally Pfister, a celebrated cinematographer, throws his hat in the ring for attempting to create an entertaining commentary on the evolution of technology with Transcendence, a story that examines the dangers of creating artificial intelligence.
Transcendence isn’t your typical Johnny Depp vehicle either; in this film, the Hollywood blockbuster star dies in the first 20 minutes of the film, with his consciousness being uploaded to a computer. From that point, it becomes a very ethics-driven story as his scientist wife Evelyn (Rebecca Hall) struggles to keep his “existence” alive, if only in digital form, while his scientific partner and friend, Max (Paul Bettany), grapples with how wrong this idea is. Throughout the movie, a group of vigilantes that call themselves R.I.F.T. fight to stop the advancement of artificial intelligence technology, even going so far as killing leading scientists in the field. But once Will’s consciousness is uploaded to the Internet, his presence is freed to do whatever he pleases, and his wife will do anything to keep him alive. Will manipulates her bank account to make her rich beyond measure, and the two retreat to a dying town in the California desert to build up their operation to further explore artificial intelligence and the use of nano technology.
The story jumps 2 years from their planting in the desert. What’s odd, however, is that while R.I.F.T. was so bent on finding and stopping Dr. Will Caster’s work–and scientists like him, they seem to take 2 years off to regroup and allow Will’s scientific pursuits in the desert to flourish underground. Why it seems they never tried to find and stop Evelyn and Will earlier in that 2 year’s time isn’t explained, and when the viewer stops to think about that detail, it’s enough to derail the story. Regardless, it’s 2 years into the future for Will and Evelyn and it shows how far they have come with technology. Will is pretty much omnipresent at this point, with Evelyn being blind to how disturbingly massive his power has become. When their location has been discovered, Will has already begun enhancing humanity with nanites, causing them to have superhuman qualities. Furthermore, Will can actually control and manipulate these people, attempting to connect with Evelyn on a human level. But when some old scientific colleagues visit Evelyn, they help her start to see just how wrong her relationship with her digital husband has become, and things begin to worsen with how much power Will has accumulated (and now exercises).
As a scientific thriller/drama, Transcendence is flawed, but it’s the players that help make it work as well as it does. In the hands of any other group of actors, the story’s flaws may have been all the more apparent. The film begins 5 years after the core of the story, and Pfister’s career in cinematography is more than apparent as he offers impressive visuals and artsy imagery from the start. And it’s just a fun and skilled cast that’s assembled here. When Depp, Morgan Freeman, Bettany, Hall, and Cillian Murphy are all in a room around a table at once, it’s like a blockbuster super team of characters from films like Pirates of the Caribben (Depp), Batman Begins (Freeman, Murphy), and Iron Man 3 (Hall, Bettany). Bettany and Hall carry most of the main scenes and they do bring a lot to the table. Even when the film fails to make a ton of sense, Pfister and company inject plenty of entertaining visuals, solid acting, and a compelling topic for discussion. Still, when all is said and done, it’s not the kind of film that sticks with you long after viewing. It wants to be, it aims to be, but by the time the credits roll, you’ll be ready to move on. That aspect works for the film on a purely entertainment level, but instead of being something like Inception or even last year’s Oblivion, it’s really not a lot more than a popcorn film. And, sadly, it starts out with so much more promise than that.
The content for the film is surprisingly mild when it comes to language and profanity (with no noticeable use of any “brief strong profanity” in it at all, despite its MPAA rating), but the film’s main caution comes with its violence. After Will’s death at the beginning of the film, which isn’t all that gruesome, things get particularly more bloody in the latter half of the film. In one instance, a man is kicked nearly to death and is seen covered in blood as needles inject nanites into his body in order to heal him. The camera lingers on the wounds as they heal up too (a little slower than Wolverine in the X-Men films, but you get the idea). In the film’s climax, many more characters get shot with bloody results (and we see some more of the nanites healing them), and another character receives severe, bloody wounds after an explosion. While there’s a wash of sci-fi over everything, the violence is still on the more intense side.
All in all, Transcendence recaptures a bit of the speculative computer sci-fi vibe that many 60’s, 70’s and 80’s movies explored, taking it to the next level with an attempt at a present-day “it could happen” kind of future computer world. Pfister has some room to grow as a director, but his work shows promise here, and the great cast save the film where its faults would otherwise doom it. If you’re not too picky about the details of your computer-tech-driven sci-fi films, there’s still plenty to enjoy about Transcendence.
– John DiBiase, (reviewed: 7/19/14)
Blu-Ray Special Features Review
It’s probably no surprise that due to its disappointing performance at the box office, that the blu-ray release is pretty thin on features. The film looks beautiful in HD, but along with the feature film are just a handful of extras that are ultimately short promo videos that were made to promote the film before it came out.
What is Transcendence? (5:20) – This five-minute video is the longest featurette about the film and is a montage of cast and crew talking about the theme of the film and if how possible it might be in real life. Each of these videos spends almost just as much time showing clips from the film as it does showing behind-the-scenes interviews.
Wally Pfister: A Singular Vision (2:52) is about this being the first directorial project from cinematographer Wally Pfister. It also briefly focuses on the story as well.
Guarding The Great (2:18) serves as the first mini-commercial/trailer for the film, mixing footage and quick interview bites.
The Promise of A.I. (2:34) is another commercial/trailer about the artificial intelligence technology and controversy surrounding it.
It’s Me (1:02) is a mini commercial of Will’s monologue in the beginning of the film. We see lots of 1’s and 0’s swirling around as he talks and then it forms his face at the end.
Singularity (1:09) features a Morgan freeman voiceover about the world’s history and artificial intelligence, showing historic images as he talks. (Interestingly enough, the very first image shown is the crucifixion)
R.I.F.T. (0:58) uses the same concept a third time, showing a digitized female face talking about stopping A.I. and asking viewers to join R.I.F.T. to help stop it.
Finally, the features conclude with two official theatrical trailers from the film. I understand that Warner probably wanted to cut their losses by not producing extra featurettes that delve into production, casting, interviews, making-of, etc, but it would have been great to see more about the film here. I would have loved to learn how much Depp was actually on the set when he was just a computer presence at that point; it must have been a much different setup. In fact, the short interview snippets in the mini-featurettes above prove that more content had been filmed, so it would have been cool to have heard more from that.
– John DiBiase, (reviewed: 7/18/14)
Parental Guide: Content Summary
Sex/Nudity: Evelyn dreams of Will on top of her in bed with them kissing, but his face turns a little sickly and she throws him off next to her where we see his body disintegrate into a flash of pixels
Vulgarity/Language: 2 “S” words, 2 “My G-d,” 1 “Oh my G-d,” 1 “h*ll,” 1 “J-sus,” 1 “J-sus Chr-st,” 1 “Oh G-d”
Alcohol/Drugs: Will offers Evelyn wine at dinner; Bree approaches Max in a bar while they’re both independently having drinks
Blood/Gore: Max has a swollen and bruised eye with a little blood around it; A man kicks another man many times, making him very bloody. His clothes and face are covered with blood. We then see him taken to an operating table where his face and body are injected with long needles and his wounds are quickly healed with nano technology. His wounds are briefly focused on in this scene. We then see part of his forehead looks exposed with a bumpy metal surface; Evelyn dreams of Will on top of her in bed with them kissing, but his face turns a little sickly and she throws him off next to her where we see his body disintegrate into a flash of pixels; We see needles injected into a blind man’s eyes and then nanites cause his eyes to turn from white to normal (this is shown in close-up); A man’s hand that’s been shot is very bloody. We then see the gory wound heal from nanites; We see more people shot with lots of blood and then we see the wounds get healed with nanites; A man with blood already on his clothes is shot again and killed. We see his body laying on a table with blood on him; An explosion throws a person and we see that they’ve been severely wounded. We see lots of blood on their clothes and a bloody gash exposed on their abdomen; We see this wounded person laying on a bed with a more prominent view of the bloody gash on their bare abdomen; A man touches the wound and we see blood on their fingers; Bree has some blood on her face; Max has some blood on his face and clothes; We see blood stains on the floor.
Violence: A sudden explosion in a lab kills a room full of people; A man shoots Will and then puts his gun to his own head and shoots himself (which happens off screen); Some people grab and punch Max and then throw him in a car; Some R.I.F.T. members shoot up computer servers with shotguns; We see quick violent images of R.I.F.T. burning papers and smashing computers; A man kicks another man many times, making him very bloody. We then see him taken to an operating table where his face and body are injected with long needles and his wounds are quickly healed with nano technology; We see needles injected into a blind man’s eyes and then nanites cause his eyes to turn from white to normal (this is shown in close-up); We see a field of solar panels explode in a series of explosions; Some soldiers open fire on civilians. We then see them get healed and restored with nanites; A man is shot and killed; Some artillery units fire on and destroy solar panels; An explosion throws a person and we see that they’ve been severely wounded; Wisps of nanites flip a jeep, throw a car, and restrain people, knocking them off their feet and strapping them to the ground; We see a person lying next to another dead person and they appear to be dying as well.