Cocktails and Movies Review: “Transcendence” – 404: Backstory Not Found

By Tim Barley and Mike Reyes

Transcendence could have been a great movie. Unfortunately, the execution does just that to the story.

I am NOT the Lawn Mower Man 2.0...

I am NOT the Lawn Mower Man 2.0…

Dr. Will Caster (Johnny Depp) has it pretty good in life. He has a beautiful wife and science partner in Evelyn (Rebecca Hall), a wise mentor in Joseph (Morgan Freeman), and a good friend in Max (Paul Bettany). With his work on Artificial Intelligence reaching new heights daily, his work towards what he calls “Transcendence” plugs on with relentless vigor and a spirit of bold curiousity. Or so we are told. There really isn’t anything to back this up, save a few glimpses of magazine covers and groupies that want his autograph. So, sure he has a good life. At least until he is shot with a radioactive bullet, and given a month to live. You think that’d this movie once and for all, but with Evelyn reluctant to give up on her husband just yet, she has an idea. An idea that starts off small enough, but grows into something that neither Will’s friends or foes can control.

Transcendence is a big movie with a big idea. An idea so big, that it’s going to take two minds to break down just what does and doesn’t work.

That’s right folks, it’s Co-Reviewing time!

Mike’s Thoughts: Wally Pfister has made a name out of making Christopher Nolan’s films looking absolutely stunning. His name can sit proudly beside Roger Deakins as a Cinematographer that will have us watching his visual eye as eagerly as any Director or star a film can hire. Which is why this film is all the more depressing when it falls flat. The story has some really good ideas, that trip over themselves in execution and manage to end up finishing rather weakly. The film starts out with a dodgy first act, that could have used about a half an hour’s worth of exposition and background to get us properly rooted in the world. However, the second act manages to start setting up for what promises to be a fresh take on the old “A.I. plans on a worldwide scale” story we’re used to seeing. And just when things are getting interesting again, the film trips over itself and stumbles into the finish gate, because it didn’t have that strong first act.

Transcendence murphy freemanThe performances in this film are, for the most part, well done. There are a lot of characters, and some of them could have easily been conflated into others. (Sorry Cillian Murphy, Morgan Freeman could have done his job and yours.) It’s not that there’s any bad performances, it’s just that there are some roles that do nothing except fulfill a small part of the storytelling pie. A small enough part, that it could have easily been put on someone else’s plate.

The one performance I WILL gripe about, surprise surprise, is Johnny “I Can’t Do Normal” Depp. His performance as Will Caster really isn’t anything particularly special. In fact, Paul Bettany could have very easily played the role, seeing as he’s still a solid actor in person as well as being trapped inside a computer. Again, it’s not that Johnny Depp is a bad actor, it’s just that he seems so used to makeup and costumes that he’s not comfortable in his own skin anymore.

The movie was a let down, but the story still has me thinking about just how it twisted itself into something so different than what we’ve seen before with this type of movie. I’d actually be an advocate of re-writing and remaking this movie, and it just came out! There’s so much promise that Transcendence fails to live up to, and it’s sad because anyone who tries to do what this film did will be labeled a copycat.

Tim’s Thoughts:

Echoing a bit of what Mike said, there are too many characters in this film. And none of them are entirely fleshed out save to serve as a reminder to Johnny Depp’s character that he was once human. And I agree that Depp seems out of his comfort zone when not hiding behind a mask anymore. Bettany’s character suffers from being integral to the cyber terrorist “bad guys” (RIFT – Revolution Independent From Technology) without much exposition on WHY he is integral other than a paper he had written showing the need to unplug once in a while. Like Mike said, you could have really combined some of these characters.

Pfister’s direction is more artsy than it needs to be here. A lot of long, drawn out shots are used to set up imagery that really does nothing to create interest in the story. But, they look nice. Someday, he may turn out to be a great director. Until then,  he needs to learn the intricacies of moving characters around to support the story. And part of a director’s job is to see when a story isn’t working correctly and make changes.

TRANSCENDENCEThe problem with the story, while a great attempt at an AI story, is that it suffers from missing lines of code, if you will. As Will’s AI intelligence grows and he becomes that much closer to a God-like figure, with the amassed amount of all the world’s intelligences at his disposal, he lets little things slip and made me question why an entity with this much intelligence would not seek to protect itself better by thinking an infinite number of moves ahead. I kept thinking of the movie Limitless, where Bradley Cooper, after taking only a pill that lets him access his entire brain, is able to think many, many moves ahead to protect his future… In this movie, the conflict between Will and his new AI personality never arrives and the conflict with the outside world that seeks to stop him never really rallies to a conclusion. When it comes down to it, there’s a lot of labor towards an idea that never really is fully realized just when it has the promise of getting good.

Some tweaks and recombinations and this movie could really have been something. It’s not a BAD movie, it just never really gets the chance to shine.

Mike’s Rating: 3/5

Tim’s Rating: 2/5

Average Rating: 3/5

Not sure a strong cocktail would have helped get past the nitpicks here. They’re pretty big nits. But, who are we to stop you? Just remember to not drink and drive and always enjoy GREAT cocktails with BAD movies.