Friday, 12 September 2014

Sci-Fi September: Transcendence (2014)

Most people will tell you that Transcendence stinks like a sweaty gym bag that has been dumped in a closet and not cleaned out for months. It's drawn comparisons to The Lawnmower Man (okay, I made that comparison, but I think others also did it) and Max Headroom, and most of those comparisons haven't been too kind. But I enjoyed it. I didn't love it, but it was certainly better than I was expecting.

The plot is pretty simple. Johnny Depp plays master computer egghead Will Caster. When Will is hospitalised, and diagnosed to be dying, he decides that the time has come to overcome the problem of developing computers with self-awareness by inputting himself into the system. When his body dies, he will live on. His wife (Evelyn, played by Rebecca Hall) is very happy with this, but a couple of colleagues (Morgan Freeman and Paul Bettany) are highly disturbed. And perhaps they should be. Because Will in computer form may not actually be Will, but rather a facsimile of him to cover for a computer that can take over the world.

A first time in the director's seat for Wally Pfister (probably best known for his cinematography in the movies of Christopher Nolan) and a first time getting script to screen for Jack Paglen, it would be easy to put the failings of Transcendence down to the fact that the two men didn't have the right experience in their relevant fields. Yet, that just doesn't seem to be the case. The script is far from the best, but it tries to keep things on point while weaving through the plot developments. This is not a film about cool sci-fi stuff and supercomputers. Well, it IS that, but it's more concerned with the moral responsibility that comes with that potential ability to access anywhere, and anything, in the entire world. Pfister may let down anyone who comes looking for a decent set-piece of two, although he doesn't do too badly at all in the big chair.

Depp is okay in the main role, I guess, even if he seems to be phoning it in (no pun intended). It's the rest of the cast who carry the film, which is probably as it should be. Hall is very good as a loving wife adjusting to a new way of life, Freeman does the same kind of thing that he's been doing for a good few years now, and Bettany is able to remind viewers that he's always worth watching, even when not voicing robo-butlers in Marvel movies. Clifton Collins Jr. does well in a relatively small role, Kate Mara is alright as a main player in a group opposed to the growth of modern technology, Cillian Murphy is sadly underused as a cop, and Cole Hauser pops in during the final third to be his usual bundle of awesomeness.

More a mix of Eagle Eye and Lucy than either of the two films mentioned in the opening paragraph, Transcendence may not be to everyone's liking but it at least sticks to its main remit for the duration - which is about two hours. It's serious fare handled with a lightness of touch, although it's also a pretty humour-free experience, and should find one or two extra fans now that it's away from the cinemas and in the home entertainment market.

Never a film for those seeking big thrills or explosions, this focuses on one or two big ideas. Not anything new or perfect, by any means, but I'd tentatively recommend it as something worth watching once. You may hate it. You may end up liking it more than I did.


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