Review for Transcendence
I’m reaching into the Poundland pile again, those Blu-rays that I bought at bargain prices just to see something different, and if necessary, disposable as well. I’m not doing too badly at the moment; out of twenty-odd watched, only two are such that I have no intention of ever watching them again. Having said all that, this film on paper doesn’t look to be one of the disposable ones. Instead, it’s more a question of what Transcendence is doing in Poundland to begin with? Christopher Nolan is an executive producer on the project, and it’s the directorial debut of his long time director of photography, Wally Pfister. It also boasts a stellar cast and the kind of premise that would have sci-fi nerds salivating.
The scientific world is taking strides in A.I research, with the promise that artificial intelligence will solve all of the world’s problems, from over-population to cancer to climate change. But for some afraid of what AI represents, a subornment of humanity to a manmade god, it’s a threat that has to be countered. On the day that visionary researcher Will Caster makes a keynote speech, the R.I.F.T group launch a series of simultaneous terrorist attacks on AI labs across the country, and one of their number attempts to assassinate Will. The bullet only grazes him, but they subsequently find that it was laced with radioactive polonium.
Now living under a death sentence, he and his wife Evelyn, and their friend Max race against time to pull together research from across the AI field, and figure out a way to transfer Will’s consciousness to a computer; theorising that it will be easier to copy an existing intelligence than to create one from scratch. But this might pose a greater threat to humanity than anything ever countenanced by radical groups like R.I.F.T.
If you know anything about Christopher Nolan, it will probably include his love for film, celluloid as a physical medium, and it will come as no surprise that Wally Pfister shares that passion. Transcendence was shot on film, and it looks fantastic on this Blu-ray. The 2.40:1 widescreen 1080p transfer is clear and sharp, colours are consistent, and when it comes to black levels, contrast and detail, this is one of the best looking Blu-rays I have seen in quite a while. Given the amount of digital effects in the film, that’s all the more impressive. The audio comes in DTS-HD MA 5.1 English surround form, with optional English subtitles, and the surround is immersive and effective, bringing the action and music across well, while keeping the dialogue centralised and audible throughout.
You get one disc in a BD Amaray, which autoplays trailers for American Hustle, August: Osage County, I, Frankenstein, Her, Devil’s Knot, and Seve the Movie, all before loading an animated menu.
There are a handful of featurettes on the disc.
What is Transcendence? (5:16)
Wally Pfister: A Singular Vision (2:49)
Guarding the Threat (2:14)
The Promise of A.I. (2:30)
There are also three teaser trailers for the film. Quite frankly, you’ll spend more time watching the pre-loaded trailers on this disc than the ephemeral, sound-bite featurettes.
Transcendence illustrates, not that we really needed the illustration, that talent, reputation, star power, and a strong premise does not guarantee a successful film. Transcendence is a rather dull, plodding misfire of a film, which promises much, but delivers an increasing level of stupidity and incredulity, conforming to every Hollywood cliché about science and technology. It also tells its story in the form of a flashback, introducing us to a run-down, post-technological world, where the only use for a laptop is as a doorstop, and then proceeds to tell us how we get to that point. This is all well and good, but it effectively kills any suspense in the story. We all know that what is threatened by the implications of this new technology will never actually happen. But, Transcendence is a beautiful looking, effectively directed feature film. There is that much.
Transcendence isn’t exactly original either. It starts off well enough, effectively establishing the world of A.I. research and the lengths that the neo-Luddites will go to throw a shoe in the works. These are fanatics motivated enough to commit acts of violence and mass murder to further their aims. They leave Will Caster alive long enough to complete his research, although he’s motivated by his wife’s grief-stricken desire not to lose her husband, thinking that transcribing his personality and memories onto a machine is the same thing as keeping him alive (yet this debate is glossed over in the film). Once in the machine, Will’s ability to access the world and affect it grows.
At this point, Transcendence feels like a slow-motion dull Lawnmower Man (which briefly had me checking for a Blu-ray release of the latter). There’s none of the tension and incipient horror though, and it feels more like a quirky romance and chase movie, as the newly minted AI helps Evelyn escape from the terrorists that have already captured Max. There’s a Stockholm syndrome element to the story, as the terrorists try to convince Max that AI is a bad idea. The problem with this story arc is that the conversion of Max to the opposing cause when it comes, happens off screen. One minute he’s chained up growing a hostage beard, the next he’s committed to the cause.
Naturally the AI is expanding through the internet at this point, as that is what AIs do in such movies, getting faster and smarter, and becoming more like Skynet. For the second half of the film, we get nanotechnology thrown into the mix, and all of a sudden we’re in Vexille territory, as the AI starts reshaping the world, and creating a panacea all for its human wife. This is where the film completely goes off the rails in terms of plausibility, as these little motes of dust are capable of anything and everything, including creating some sort of hippy Borg collective. The conclusion of the film, which I admit is wholly in spoiler territory, asks the audience to swallow the idea of a biological virus infecting a computer.
Transcendence has some nice ideas, it flows along well enough, and when push comes to shove, it’s watchable too, but the story is daft, and I just didn’t care sufficiently about the characters to suspend my disbelief long enough and invest in the story. I can see why Transcendence found a home in Poundland.