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Big-budget blockbusters tend to be written off as mindless fun, so it’s interesting to see a major studio release that turns reverses that trend. Transcendence has plenty of big ideas that it’s trying to convey, but the dull execution fails to do justice to the themes presented.
The film centers on computer engineers Will and Evelyn Caster (Johnny Depp and Rebecca Hall) in their attempts to build a sentient computer. After being shot with a radioactive bullet by technophobic terrorists, Will is left with only a month to live. Desperate to save her husband, Evelyn and mutual friend Max (Paul Bettany) upload Will’s mind to an advanced supercomputer. The process works and soon Will is connected to the internet, giving him unparalleled knowledge and access. Despite Will’s good intentions, it soon becomes clear that he must be stopped.
Why must he be stopped? It’s here where the movie becomes hazy. Director Wally Pfister and writer Jack Paglan raise questions the benefits and dangers of advanced technology, but they don’t flesh out the discussion with insight or debate. Instead, there are fight scenes and computer viruses.
Rebecca Hall’s sorrowful performance helps anchor the film emotionally, but the contrived conflict between Will and his foes (the FBI and the terrorists, bizarrely working together) fails to engage, partly because neither side has been developed very much.
Other than a standout Hall, none of the players, Depp especially, impress. All of the actors are burdened with technobabble, exposition and preaching, though, so they don’t have much to work with.
Pfister, the longtime cinematographer for Christopher Nolan, conjures up some beautiful imagery over the course of the film, but this visual splendor can’t disguise the confused mess of ideas and half-developed characters that is Transcendence.