Top critical review
16 people found this helpful
Visually stunning sci-fi that underwhelms in the ideas department
on July 30, 2014
Good sci-fi has always been about ideas, and TRANSCENDENCE does have some. Still, visuals end up trumping the compelling questions which it could have at least attempted to answer. The story is about Will Caster, an AI researcher who is attacked by an anti-technology group known as RIFT (Radical Independence From Technology). They only graze him with a bullet, but the bullet was laced with a lethal substance and now he only has a month to live. Desperate to save his life by any means possible, his wife (and research partner) tests an experimental procedure which uploads his consciousness to a computer. From there he evolves and grows to a point practically beyond human comprehension, all with RIFT on his trail.
Watching this, at least for the first two thirds, I kept wondering why on earth this flopped so hard. It might not be the smartest sci-fi out there, having a decent amount of logical issues and extraordinary suspense of disbelief towards the end, but at its core is a compelling relationship and the age-old question of whether humans can create something as, or more, intelligent than ourselves. However by the end, with its typical action climax and really failing to probe the issues at its heart, I can understand why it might turn some people off. For my money, it was a good, well-intentioned effort by first-time director Wally Pfister (Christopher Nolan's longtime DP, who also has a producing credit). None of what is wrong with the film can really be laid on his shoulders. That would be first-time writer Jack Paglen. At times, it isn't clear what he intended the message of the film to be, since the results are a bit mixed. Is it anti-technology or not? Who are the real villains supposed to be? The answers to these questions seem to change as the film progresses.
Another major weakness I found was the footage that bookends the narrative. Set five years after the events of the film, it essentially gives away the endgame and removes any and all questions as to how the film might turn out. Still, the journey there is interesting and extremely cool to watch. Speaking of things that are cool to watch, I must say that the film is very well designed and filmed, and has some awesome visual effects. Granted, these don't really make up for the faults in the writing, but at least it was pretty to look at. One minor issue I will point out is the pacing, as there is a two-year jump in the middle of the film which not only throws off the narrative thrust (as slow as it might be), but also raises a lot of additional questions that the writers probably don't want viewers to be asking, the least of which is given how powerful that Will becomes in terms of the things he can do, how this didn't revolutionize the technology and medical fields anywhere else. Also, are we supposed to believe that RIFT or the FBI didn't make much of any headway in the intervening time period?
Anyway, I digress. Despite a lot of these questions periodically coming up after I started to think about what I was watching, I still enjoyed myself. Why? Mainly because it wasn't boring, which is the worst crime a film can commit. Even though the tough questions aren't really given their due, the cast did a good job and the film was visually pleasing (although I kind of wish that some of the supporting cast had been given more screen time). Overall, as long as you lower your expectations a bit I see no reason why this wouldn't be a good way to pass two hours.