Director: Wally Pfister
Starring: Johnny Depp, Rebecca Hall, Paul Bettany, Kate Mara, Morgan Freeman, Cillian Murphy

When rumblings started coming out that Wally Pfister would be making his directorial debut, I got pretty excited. He is an Academy Award-winning cinematographer for his work on Christopher Nolan’s Inception , and I think his work on Nolan’s Batman trilogy is exquisite, especially the IMAX sequences. As the technology continues to grow, there is an ever growing debate on whether films should be shot using digital cameras or on film. His continues to champion the use of 35mm film over digital, but has acknowledged he would consider using digital if the technology improves. He has enlisted the help of Morgan Freeman, Cillian Murphy, and Rebecca Hall, who have all appeared in Christopher Nolan films, as well as Johnny Depp, Paul Bettany, and Kate Mara.

Dr. Will Caster (Depp) is considered a celebrity in the field of artificial intelligence. His wife, Evelyn (Hall), and best friend, Max (Bettany), are his principle researchers as he works toward creating a computer program with the emotional and intelligent capabilities of a human. An anti-technology group named R.I.F.T. (Revolutionary Independence From Technology) shows up at one of his lectures and shoots Will. At the same time, explosions occur at numerous artificial intelligence labs across the country.

Will initially survives the shooting, but later dies due to complications from the bullet. Before he dies, he attempts to transcend himself by connecting his brain into P.I.N.N. (Physically Independent Neural Network), the massive processor behind their entire work. Evelyn and Max question the ethical, and potentially dangerous, repercussions this could have. Will’s intelligence survives inside the computer even though his body dies, and Evelyn continues on with his dream of transcendence. Will continues to advance through P.I.N.N., and this new power for him proves far more dangerous than Evelyn or Max ever imagined.

Unfortunately, I think Pfister may have bitten off more than he could chew here as a first time director. I don’t know if it’s the premise behind the film, the special effects, or the science fiction aspects, but the combination appears to be too much for someone who is new to the director’s chair. The script is from first time screenwriter Jack Paglen and apparently sat on a “black list” of unproduced screenplays for years. I can understand why it sat for so long. The basic premise about trying to add emotional capabilities into computers so they can become more advanced than human life provides some interesting debate regarding the ethical ramifications of trying to play God. The film addresses that idea of continuing to advance technology to help us grow and survive, but questions how far is too far. I don’t think this is an entirely new concept or as original of an idea as they want us to believe it is. There are plenty of movies out there about this idea of computers that become more powerful than their human counterparts.

Another problem seems to be the mixed bag of acting and character development. Rebecca Hall and Paul Bettany are standouts as they seem to be the only two that have some depth and dimension to their characters. I was excited to finally see Johnny Depp step away from those Tim Burton or Disney movies where he is always playing some sort of silly character with exaggerated make-up and costumes. His acting has the potential to lend the same interesting qualities to this type of character, yet he seems stale and boring here. I didn’t see enough of a shift in character after he becomes transcended. I wonder why Pfister wanted him to stay fairly neutral or if that was Depp’s choice, but he could have gone so much further to a similar vibe to HAL from 2001: A Space Odyssey. Part of the film is the love story between Hall and him, yet the chemistry between them was lacking. Morgan Freeman’s character isn’t anything we haven’t seen from him before.

It’s a shame that with the pedigree of everyone involved with Transcendence that it misses the mark. I have seen the movie twice now, and both times it felt stale and stagnant. The ideas behind the movie are intriguing, but in the end, it isn’t saying anything new that we haven’t seen before although I appreciated the addition of the anti-technology group. I still think Pfister has potential as a director so I am curious to see if he will continue to direct. Hopefully, he can find a better script for his next project.

Is it worth your trip to the movies? It’s not an awful movie; it’s just disappointing.

RATING: 2 out of 5 Ticket Stubs

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