Review by Gordon Justesen
Depp, Morgan Freeman, Rebecca Hall, Kate Mara, Cillian Murphy, Cole Hauser, Paul
Director: Wally Pfister
Audio: DTS HD 5.1
Video: Anamorphic Widescreen 2.40:1
Studio: Warner Bros.
Features: See Review
Length: 119 Minutes
Release Date: July 22, 2014
“Where are you going?”
It’s been a while since I’ve seen a movie with so much potential fail in execution. Transcendence boasts an amazing cast, is co-produced by none other than Christopher Nolan in addition to being the directorial debut of Nolan’s chief cinematographer, Wally Pfister, and was a film I was very much looking forward to. Thus far, I’d say it’s the biggest disappointment of 2014.
As it turns out, it’s not a thoroughly bad movie. In fact, the first half or so is rather intriguing. What makes this film a huge letdown is the mere fact that, following such a good setup we are left with a second half that is boring, uninteresting and does not one ounce of justice to the intriguing premise at the center of the story.
The story involves renowned scientist Dr. Will Caster (Johnny Depp), who has long been drawn to the concept of a type of artifical intelligence that is able to surpass the processing power of a normal human brain. This is what’s known as singularity, or “transcendence”. This passion results in drawing out an anti-technology group known as R.I.F.T. (Revolutionary Independence From Technology), who make an assassination attempt on Caster following a public speaking event.
Although appearing to recuperate from the attack, it turns out the bullet Caster took was laced with radiation poisoning, giving him only about a month to live. As a way of preserving the man, Caster’s wife, Evelyn (Rebecca Hall), and close friend, Max (Paul Bettany), decide to take his work one step further...by uploading his consciousness into an artificial intelligence machine he had been long been working on. And as fate would have it, Will has indeed be reborn inside a computer, and developed nanotechnology that heal and cure just about every human handicap and disease.
So as you can see, the movie has quite an engrossing setup. And thanks to the slick visual style of director Pfister (the movie does very much have the look and mood of a Christopher Nolan film) as well as the superb visual effects associated with the digital environment at hand, it’s very hard not to remain intrigued. But for some inane reason, the screenplay decides to incorporate a second half that leaves the viewer scratching their heads on multiple occasions.
Basically, what could’ve been a thought provoking meditation on the dangers of a human controlled form of artificial intelligence becomes a rather bland B sci-fi piece derived from countless movies of the 70s. We get countless scenes of Will’s self aware computer controlling various human beings (whom he’s cured) to attack any and all humans who aren’t willing to go along with his reign. The movie also has some surprising issues with story pacing, in addition to explaining key details, such as why Max, who eventually gets taken captive by the R.I.F.T. group, decides to stay alongside them when he is given the opportunity to leave when they are no longer threatening him in any aggressive way.
And in spite of a talented cast lineup, no one here seems to be trying very hard. That is, with the sole exception of Rebecca Hall, who is quite compelling as a grieving widow who is convinced that her husband is still alive, even if it’s inside a super-computer. As for Depp, I will say that in spite of an unusually low-key performance, it is refreshing to see him not incorporate Jack Sparrow into another character (and this is coming from someone who actually really enjoyed The Lone Ranger.) But it’s a shame to have a movie where you have the likes of Morgan Freeman, Cillian Murphy, Kate Mara and Paul Bettany, only to see them be given very little to work with.
The dangers of technology has been far better explored in such great works as 2001, Minority Report and even the Terminator movies. Transcendence could have been in the same league if it had faith in its premise and the guts to follow through after establishing close to a superb first half. The lazy and un involving second act, in addition to the fact that you expect far better from this cast and crew, perfectly illustrates why the movie is the major disappointment that it is.
Not disappointing in any way, shape or form is the Blu-ray presentation from Warner. In fact, it’s pretty darn magnificent! As I mentioned earlier, the look does resemble that of a Christopher Nolan film, and so we get strong image details, tremendous black levels and amazing color turnout. And the digital effects are absolutely remarkable to gaze upon in the 1080p.
The DTS HD mix is without question the high point of the Blu-ray. Between the immensely moody music score by Mychael Danna, the wide ambient of sound environment associated with the digital world being depicted to the simple sound of Johnny Depp’s voice once his character is reborn as an A.I. god, the lossless audio is being given a great deal to work with and it delivers every sound aspect at a hundred percent. It may be a letdown of a movie, but this is far and away one of the best sounding discs to come out this year!
Included on this Warner Blu-ray are a good number of featurettes, though each of which is very slim on running time. The featurettes included are “What is Transcendence?”, “Wally Pfister: A Singular Vision”, “Guarding the Threat” and “The Promise of A.I.”. Also included are brief viral video segments: “It’s Me”, “Singularity” and “R.I.F.T.” Rounding out the package are two Theatrical Trailers.
This Blu-ray Combo pack release also includes a DVD copy of the movie as well as a downloadable UltraViolet version.
When you’ve got so much talent both in front of and behind the camera, a movie like Transcendence should amount to way much more than it does. Wally Pfister is a brilliant cinematographer and shows true promise as a top tier filmmaker. With quality material, the direct opposite of this, stronger, he could very much be the next Nolan. A major letdown, but a fantastic Blu-ray from Warner!