The Coast News Group
Will Caster (Johnny Depp) is a researcher of Artificial Intelligence, who becomes a part of his own experiment in the film, “Transcendence.” Photo by Peter Mountain
Will Caster (Johnny Depp) is a researcher of Artificial Intelligence, who becomes a part of his own experiment in the film, “Transcendence.” Photo by Peter Mountain
ArtsRancho Santa Fe

Film review: The man in the machine

A digital Depp is interesting to watch but some connection is lost in ‘Transcendence’

“Transcendence” looks and feels cool — not surprising, given its trippy concept — but somehow its intellectual side forgets to make use of most of the actors’ potential.

Technology has, whether we like it or not, defined humanity; nowhere is this more apparent than in our current computerized era.

And one thing’s for certain: our constant desire to evolve corresponds to the progressive nature of technology.

So then what implications could await us as the boundary between creators and the created blurs?

That is the question to which Dr. Will Caster (Johnny Depp) seeks an answer in his goal to create a sentient/collectively intelligent machine.

All seems lost when anti-technology extremists attack him, but their actions result in him participating in his own experiment. Such a big step would produce endless possibilities, but even if it could be done, should it?

Will’s wife Evelyn (Rebecca Hall) and his best friend Max Waters (Paul Bettany) are at odds with whether or not downloading

Will’s mind into a computer to save his life was a good idea.

That is a question of which they aren’t sure what answer to expect since Will seeks to acquire not only knowledge, but also power. And he won’t let anything (or anybody) stop him.

When it comes to pacing, I have to give first-time director Wally Pfister credit…he has confidence in knowing when to speed up and slow down.

His taut focus on the plot drives the film forward as the audience continually wonders what Will intends to achieve in his digital form, as well as witnessing Evelyn experience changes in her relationship with her husband.

Not for a single moment does the anticipation waver, and by the time the action-packed climax emerges, the adrenaline continues to throb as the unthinkable possibilities behind mankind’s history with technology unravel and flood our minds.

“Transcendence” matches its bold premise with slick visuals that serve to enhance, not overwhelm, the film.

Watching a digital Depp demonstrate his capabilities and the inclusion of silvery nanotechnology later on is quite a sight to behold, and given Pfister’s experience as a cinematographer, seeing these effects captured in numerous cool camera shots is a no-brainer.

OK, so “Transcendence” has it all in terms of premise, plot, and effects. I can’t say the same about the cast, however. A stellar choice of actors, yes, but only a few managed to reach the full potential of their characters here.

Johnny Depp does a good job portraying Will’s driven personality when he is a living, breathing human. Once he makes the transition from man to machine, a substantial chunk of him gets lost. Perhaps this was intentional on Pfister’s part when casting Depp; yet because he shows little change in expression, it’s hard to connect to or understand him at times.

Paul Bettany has a contemplative logic about him in his role of Max, and succeeds in engaging the audience with his levelheaded demeanor. Kate Mara, who plays a prominent anti-tech extremist, attempts to imbue her role with a sympathetic edge, but her reasons seem to lack a major “big reason” required to lend credibility to her actions.

I appreciate seeing Morgan Freeman in any film he is a part of, but the fact that his character Joseph Tagger (another academic) doesn’t really express his own perspective on technological advancement is kind of underwhelming. Cillian Murphy is your cookie-cutter federal agent; he lacks any attitude towards technology and exists simply to move things along.

If anything, Rebecca Hall is responsible for singlehandedly rescuing “Transcendence” from its own flaws. She brings a real emotional gravitas to Evelyn, whose love for her husband clashes with the astonishing direction in which their years of research are taking them. As for her chemistry with Depp, where he occasionally stumbles, she manages to get it back on track.

For all its shortcomings and missed opportunities, “Transcendence” is not half bad as a directorial debut for Wally Pfister. It’s only a start, but I have a good feeling that should he decide to continue making films, his next one will be a better, refined follow-up.

MPAA rating: PG-13 for sci-fi action and violence, some bloody images, brief strong language and sensuality.

Run time: 1 hour and 59 minutes

Playing: In general release