In the not-too-distant future, a genius scientist called Will (Johnny Depp) is at the cutting edge of artificial intelligence. He runs a lab with his parter Evelyn (Rebecca Hall) and their friend Max (Paul Bettany), but when anti-AI terrorists shoot Will with a polonium-laced bullet, he has just months to live. With a previous experiment to put the consciousness of a monkey into a machine proving a success, Evelyn and Max conspire to do the same for Will. But with his intellect combined with a world of knowledge, his power grows, and he poses a threat to more and more people.
This is the directoral debut from Wally Pfister, the cinematographer best known for his work with Christopher Nolan on Inception and The Dark Knight trilogy. As you would expect it has striking visuals, but he also shows his talent for creating a compelling piece of science fiction.
Transcendence is very unfortunate in that it’s been released just months after Her. Some sci-fi films are pure sci-fi (say, THX 1138) and others combine with other genres, usually thriller or action. Her showed that science fiction could combine with a romantic drama and lose nothing from either genre. Transcendence is very similar in the sense that it involves a human in love with a digital intelligence. As such it can’t help but invite comparisons, by which it pales.
Part of Her‘s boldness was in never having a physical element to the relationship, never feeling the need to show Samantha as anything more than a voice. With the relationship in Transcendence beginning in human form, and with the uploaded intelligence speaking through Will’s face on a screen throughout, it feels less original. It also never reaches the emotional highs and lows of Her. This isn’t to say it’s at all bad. I really enjoyed it. It just suffers from horrible timing, coming in the wake of one of the most refreshing and original science fiction films of recent years.
The focus is on the science fiction so much that we never get any background to the couple’s relationship beyond their work as scientists. As such it’s never particularly moving, in spite of a terrific performance from Hall. Will is also a rather cold, hard-to-relate to character, even before he is merged with a computer intelligence. Combine this with the fact Cillian Murphy and Morgan Freeman are criminally underused, and you have a film which never rises above the power of its ideas.
The plot hurtles along at an impressive pace, and while the technology in the film develops to an extent that is completely alien to us, it’s explained in a plausible enough way. The potential for computer intelligence to change every aspect of our lives is still not fully understood by most people, so to see the implications displayed like this is brilliant. Operating on a far bigger scale that Her, this isn’t just about two people, it’s about how humanity can reconcile living with a god-like intelligence.
It just goes to show that bigger isn’t necessarily better, and good sci-fi needs good characters to make a great film. No-one can fault this film for its ideas, but on an emotional level it struggles to find its feet.