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“Transcendence” fails to rise above a clunky plot

Courtesy of MCT Campus

To me, the most successful sci-fi focuses on concepts just out of our reach and plays them off as plausible. “Transcendence” starts out with this promise, but as the minutes tick by, the plot only grows more ridiculous, and the concepts become almost magical as opposed to scientific and technological.

Courtesy of MCT Campus
Courtesy of MCT Campus

The film focuses on the concept of artificial intelligence, specifically on the research of Dr. Will Caster (Johnny Depp), who is just on the brink of developing a sentient AI. After an anti-technology “neo-luddite” terrorist group launches simultaneous attacks on AI labs across the country, shooting Caster in the process, his research comes to a screeching halt. In addition to a gunshot wound, the bullet was laced with radiation, and Caster only has weeks to live.

Thanks to the persistence of Caster’s wife, Evelyn (Rebecca Hall) and best friend, Max Waters (Paul Bettany), Caster’s dying consciousness is slowly uploaded into his AI system, and even after his body dies, he remains sentient within the world’s networks. As the years pass by, the film explores whether or not the system is truly Will, or if it’s become a corrupted, twisted echo of who he was. As the anti-technology movement continues to grow, Will takes control of global financial networks and, using nanotechnology, begins to create a perfect world.

The film’s main conflict is whether or not Will is truly benefitting anyone, and a violent, dramatic standoff at the end of the film attempts to bring the matter to a close. It fails miserably. Not only is the plot outlandish and confusing, the ending is also ambiguous, leaving you unsure who the real protagonist is. Additionally, the film’s running time of two hours drags on, and left me checking my watch about every ten minutes.

Where the film does shine, however, is in its unique cinematography and incredible special effects. Instead of simply transitioning from one scene to the next, director and cinematographer Wally Pfister (who was also in charge of cinematography for “Inception” and “The Dark Knight”) splices in artistic, beautiful B-roll shots to ease each transition. The movie was also shot on film as opposed to digitally.

The special effects are a triumph. Caster’s machines feature multiple mechanical parts and robotic apparatuses, each of which are elaborately rendered and move with organic fluidity. In the film’s more intense battle scenes, explosions and gunshots blend seamlessly and realistically.

In addition to these technological accomplishments, the film’s cast is spot-on in their performances. Depp portrays Caster with his familiar competent creepiness, and Bettany is perfect as a distraught best friend who only wants what’s best for Evelyn. Cillian Murphy and Morgan Freeman are effectively cast (if not underused) in their roles as government agent Buchannan and fellow scientist Joseph Tagger, respectively, and lend an element of star power to the film.

The true shining star of the film is Rebecca Hall, who plays Evelyn with the raw drive of a woman hell-bent on saving her husband, but whose morals are called into question as Caster’s machine runs more and more rampant. Hall is excellent at delivering Evelyn’s hesitant battle between fearing and trusting her husband, and is easily the best part of the movie.

Is “Transcendence” thought-provoking? You bet. But the film’s ambiguous ending leaves me unsure of exactly what to take away from the two hour experience, except that I should really back up my Google Drive in case of a worldwide network blackout.

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