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"TRANSCENDENCE"
(2014) (Johnny Depp, Rebecca Hall) (PG-13)


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QUICK TAKE:
Sci-Fi: After being mortally wounded by anti-technology extremists, an expert in artificial intelligence has his mind uploaded onto a computer network where he grows progressively more powerful.
PLOT:
In the world of artificial intelligence, Will Caster (JOHNNY DEPP) is at the forefront of such research. Along with his wife, Evelyn (REBECCA HALL), and fellow researcher, Max Waters (PAUL BETTANY), he's been making great strides in the field, especially in his belief that a person's consciousness can actually be transferred into a computer.

Such work has its critics, however, including the anti-tech extremist group known as RIFT (Revolutionary Independence from Technology). Lead by Bree (KATE MARA), they want to stop the likes of Will as well as Joseph Tagger (MORGAN FREEMAN) who works in the cyber defense industry. When RIFT strikes, most of Joseph's team is wiped out, while Will ends up mortally wounded by a radiation-laced bullet. Such actions bring about the attention of the FBI and lead agent Donald Buchanan (CILLIAN MURPHY), but with his time in his physical body running out, Will agrees to attempt to transfer his consciousness into a computer system.

Once on the Internet, his intelligence and access to any and all resources grows, all while providing cover for Evelyn who's still a target for Bree and her followers. Eventually settling into a remote and nearly deserted desert town, Will (in his computerized form) and Evelyn set out to use technology to make the world a better place, including helping the likes of local contractor Martin (CLIFTON COLLINS JR.) become something far greater than his former self.

Yet, as Will's power increases, both Joseph and a military unit lead by Col. Stevens (COLE HAUSER), as well as Bree and her followers (who've abducted Max) attempt to stop the cyber man before it's too late for them to do anything.

OUR TAKE: 4 out of 10
While it might not jive with the preconceived notion that movie reviewers are all-seeing and all-knowing about everything related to movies, not all critics fall into such a grouping, especially when it pertains to upcoming releases. After all, we don't regularly see movie trailers (previews) before our press screenings, unlike the general public that gets bombarded with them for 15 to 20 minutes before the main attraction. And unless we actively keep up to date on movie news sites, some of us are only aware of upcoming films from a few weeks out rather than every film that's in the pipeline.

I sort of like it that way, but it does have some drawbacks. For starters, those who like to talk movies often can't believe I know nothing about certain films that are being released months or years from now. And then there's the matter of starting preliminary work on a screenplay, completely unaware that a film of similar subject matter is coming soon.

Such was the case for yours truly. Having read theoretical physicist Michio Kaku's "The Future of the Mind," I came up with the idea of a world where people's consciousnesses were uploaded onto computers (I won't expand upon the idea for obvious reasons). Perhaps if mine had been I would have known about "Transcendence" that hits theaters today. The good news (for me) is that while the initial component of the underlying premise is the same as mine, my idea goes off in a fairly different direction. The bad news (for all of us) is that this film isn't anywhere as good as it could and should have been, especially considering the built-in potential.

As written by Jack Paglen, it tells the tale of artificial intelligence expert Will Caster (Johnny Depp taking a break from playing wacky characters) who believes he's figured out a way to transfer one's consciousness over and onto a computer network. Unfortunately for him, a group of anti-tech extremists (fronted by Kate Mara) don't like where things are headed and thus strike those working in the field.

While fellow researcher Joseph Tagger (a mostly wasted Morgan Freeman) survives an attack that wipes out most of his team, Will gets shot with a radiation laced bullet at a symposium where he's appearing to raise research funds for the work being done by him, his wife (Rebecca Hall) and their associate (Paul Bettany).

Not wanting to lose her husband, Evelyn proposes that Will's consciousness be uploaded onto a computer and he eventually ends there, although Bettany's character questions if it truly is him or just an impressive collection of his memories, mindset and such. From there, he naturally grows more powerful, much to the concern of his wife and friend and to the increasing dismay of those opposed to this very sort of thing from happening.

As directed by cinematographer turned first-time director Wally Pfister (who's shot all of Christopher Nolan's films), the pic should have worked better than it does. Part of the problem lies the direction and paths the story takes once the premise is established. Without going into too many spoilers, such developments simply didn't work for me. Yes, I understand the intention, but some of them end up feeling like cheesy sci-fi concepts, while not all of the particulars make sense in terms of believability.

The bigger issue is that the nearly two-hour film is quite slow, both in terms of its buildup and then the execution and payoff. With most everyone knowing the general direction in which the story is headed, it takes its sweet old time getting there. And what's delivered -- be that the action & suspense along with the more cerebral elements and thematic material -- simply doesn't elicit the sort of engagement, excitement, mind-blowing developments and/or overall gravitas one expects from an offering such as this.

The performances by Depp, Hall, Bettany and company are generally okay although nothing remarkable or memorable, but the performers are hampered by script and directorial issues (Depp, natch, spends much of his time trapped inside monitor displays). And considering Pfister shot all of Nolan's great looking films ("The Dark Knight," "Inception," etc.) at least the cinematography (by Jess Hall) should have stood out as a pleasure to behold. Alas, it's as pedestrian as the rest of the film.

If anything, the pic will show me what to avoid in my script that I'll tackle once again once the memory of this one has faded from most viewers' (and studio heads') minds. Considering that it's already slipping from mine less than 24 hours after seeing it, that might not take as long as I had originally feared. While it too shall end up stored forever on a computer network, "Transcendence" doesn't transcend the trappings and pitfalls of the genre and thus rates as only a 4 out of 10.




Reviewed April 15, 2014 / Posted April 18, 2014


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