The Aisle Seat - Movie Reviews by Mike McGranaghan
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THE AISLE SEAT - by Mike McGranaghan



Transcendence reminded me of the evening in 1998 that I screened Alex Proyas' Dark City. That film had been torn apart by most critics (Roger Ebert being a notable exception), but I thought it was absolutely brilliant. Today, it's generally regarded as a modern sci-fi classic. Transcendence isn't as good, but it shares a similar sense of go-for-broke ambition that may mark it as ahead of its time. Ten years from now, we might all be placing it in the same pantheon.

Johnny Depp plays Dr. Will Caster, a leading researcher in the field of artificial intelligence. He's working on experiments in helping computers to become sentient. An extremist group known as R.I.F.T. believes that if his efforts succeed, it could be bad for the human race, so they attempt to assassinate him. Caster does indeed die, although not initially. Before doing so, his wife Evelyn (Rebecca Hall) and colleague Max (Paul Bettany) use a newly-developed technique to upload his brain into a computer, essentially allowing him – or at least his intellect – to survive. Cyber-Caster begins acquiring knowledge and using it to develop astounding new kinds of nanotechnology. Meanwhile, Max is kidnapped by R.I.F.T., prompting two FBI agents (Morgan Freeman and Cillian Murphy) to start investigating. Evelyn, for her part, is initially glad to have some semblance of her husband still around, but his quest for knowledge evolves into something that may come with questionable implications.

Transcendence, directed by Wally Pfister (Christopher Nolan's longtime cinematographer), continually reaches for big ideas, which is a large part of its appeal. On the surface, it may appear to be yet another “Fear technology!” tale, but in reality, it's deeper and more thoughtful than that. The movie suggests that increasingly sophisticated technology is going to change the world no matter what, and we, as guardians of civilization, have to make sure that those changes are beneficial and not harmful. Cyber-Caster (that's my term, not the film's) sees ways to use developing technology for good, yet because he can't distinguish facts from emotion, the impact of his next-level work doesn't take all factors into account. I'm a sucker for sci-fi movies that try to take on big themes or address provocative issues. Transcendence definitely falls into that category, as it asks some intriguing questions about where technology might take us and at what cost.

If anything, the screenplay by Jack Paglan could have gone further. A few elements would have been even more thought-provoking with a little added development. (It might have helped to bring in a second writer to punch some things up.) Most notably, Transcendence avoids exploring the actual issue of sentience. Will Caster is supposedly a brilliant man, yet when he turns into a sentient computer, we never hear his thoughts on it. Certainly someone of his intellect and experience would have some deep perspectives on the groundbreaking event he is part of. The motivations of R.I.F.T. could have been expanded on, as well. We understand that they're anti-technology. What we don't fully grasp is the ethic behind their stance.

The performances hold things together in the looser moments. Rebecca Hall is terrific, bringing life to some difficult material. She has to essentially be in love with a computer program, to see the person she married replicated digitally on a video screen and convey the loss Evelyn feels. To Hall's credit, she makes us believe in it. Morgan Freeman is reliably dependable in a somewhat underwritten role, while Kate Mara brings a perfectly rebellious, youthful edge to the role of one of the R.I.F.T. members. The weak link, oddly, is Depp, who quite frankly is a bit too lethargic here. He's not really in Transcendence as much as you'd expect (it's often only his voice), so that isn't a major issue.

My suspicion is that repeat viewings might actually reveal more depth than you get the first time around. So much information flies at you so quickly that you almost need to see Transcendence more than once to fully grasp it all. (That's why I think it may grow in stature over time.) If certain things would have benefited from more exploration, the film at least gets its major idea right: technology is something that has already changed the world and will change it again, in ways we can barely begin to fathom. This is a piece of science-fiction that's shooting for the fences. I like it for just that reason. Not perfect by any stretch of the imagination, but there's a lot here to chew on and ponder.

( out of four)

Blu-Ray Features:


Transcendence will be released in a Blu-Ray/DVD combo pack on July 22. It will also be available on DVD and on-demand via the regular VOD platforms.

Considering the weighty themes of the movie, it's a little disappointing that the bonus materials lack substance. “What Is Transcendence?” runs five minutes and features the cast members discussing a few of the story's ideas. Computer science experts also appear to explain which things could really happen – and are on their way toward happening – and which ones are mere science-fiction.

“Wally Pfister: A Singular Vision” is a three-minute look at the cinematographer-turned-director. The stars and producers turn up to sing his praises. “Guarding the Threat” is a two-minute overview of the movie. It's essentially the trailer, with a few short comments from the stars inserted. “The Promise of A.I.” - also two minutes – has cast and crew musing on the benefits and dangers of technology. “It's Me” is a one-minute teaser trailer, as is the Morgan Freeman-narrated “Singularity” and the Kate Mara-narrated “R.I.F.T.” Two full-length theatrical trailers round out the bonus materials.

A digital copy of Transcendence is also included in the combo pack.

Transcendence is rated PG-13 for sci-fi action and violence, some bloody images, brief strong language and sensuality. The running time is 1 hour and 59 minutes.

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