It's entirely likely that you didn't see this movie turn up on your radar. I utterly missed this one - I didn't hear about it, didn't catach a glimpse of any of the media surrounding it, not even a whiff from the cracking cast that appears in it. And then there's a thoroughly vicious selection of reviews culminating in an IMDB score of 6.3 out of 10 and a Metacritic score of 42%. And you know what? I think I know why.
Ever watched one of those films where you see the popular group of like minded individuals do a bunch of stuff because they want to preserve some form of nostalgia or a traditional ritual that's bordering on the controversial? And the way the film is told, you feel as though you want to side with them because you get this thoroughly poignant arguement which tugs on all the necessary heart strings? And then it turns out that what you've been slowly rooting for is actually a monstrous and hideous thing that should be abolished by the end of the movie? Yeah, that's how most of the critics felt when they got round to trying to review this movie. They liked that part when the humans got up and fought back about the encroaching artifically intelligent, nano-technologically enhanced 'superior beings' got involved. What they didn't like was that the punch line was that the Humans are, in fact, violent, pettty, selfish and utterly under-equipped, both physically, mentally, socially and spiritually, for the theoretical Technological Singularity that scientists are currently forecasting somewhere in our 'evolution'.
And nothing makes a critic whinge and bitch like a science fiction story that makes them question how flawed their 'humanity' is or that science is actually going to solve the problems currently floating about. What critics don't do, is any of the required reading to figure out what the film is about - sure you might have the historical knowledge to vet films like Speilberg's 'Schindler's List' and throw oscars at it, or the medical clout to find a series like 'House' even more entertaining (as if Hugh Laurie wasn't enough...), but if you check the reviews on the web about the film, you'll quickly realise that's precisely the problem with how this film has been received: this is an ambitious subject that most people simply will never have considered - mix two of the most concept-defining sciences currrently in research and development and offer up a plate of science fiction drama that actually places that Human element in to the middle of it.
Before I drop the film on you, there's another thing that needs addressing: Johnny Depp.
Depp is, in my opinion, one of those actors that's often stuck in a horrid rutt that is entirely the fault of Tim 'One Trick Pony' Burton and Jerry 'If I wanted history, I'd go to a fucking museum' Bruckheimer. They have, in my opinion, between the two of them turned Depp in to something of a laughing stock - while Captain Jack Sparrow is a fantastic character the persona is wearing thin because of the films' inability to really bring the character past some sort of mediocritical (?) sterility, and while a desperately try to avoid the horror that was The Lone Ranger it's not because of Depp's interpretation of his character. For the record, I truly loved 'Rango' and his side personal project of Hunter Thompson's 'The Rum Diaries' was simply phenomenal, and yet each of these films has taken such an unfair hammering from the critics.
If I were to devil's advocate for a moment (can that be a verb in such a context? Oh well... I just did, so there...) you could argue that Depp took those roles all the same and deserves all the heat that comes with that decision. Fair enough, throw that plate if you must, but while you're at it you can ask yourself who would also be capable of playing the part that was WRITTEN!
Yeah, not so easy, is it? Assume for a second that Lone Ranger (*spits in to the corner*) is getting made with exactly the same script and exactly the same photography, who would you put in Depp's place? Do you think whoever else took the part was going to have any easier a time? Or would they get an even tougher time simply because they're playing a goof?
And is it fair that Depp's being judged for all of the 'goofy' roles he's been taking? Several of the critics out there are calling him out because he's a father and it's effecting his ability to act. To that I call 'Bullshit': If 'The Rum Diaries' is a kids film then they can bring Tom & Jerry's cartoon violence back. If his performance in Transcendence is too subtle for the critics to appreciate then they should be considering a new line of observation - try cartoons where the motions and expressions are a little simpler to perceive.
And so on to the film.
Transcendence is an ambitious science fiction drama with a fantastic cast offering concepts to the viewers that, while appearing somewhat alien, are slowly becoming a reality. The film follows three primary characters: Dr. Will Castor (Johnny Depp), his wife Dr. Evelyn Castor (Rebecca Hall) and Dr. Max Waters (Paul Bettany), all of which are close friends and researching cutting edge scientific technology until an aggitated and frightened man shoots Will with a polonium laced bullet, causing Will to die a slow and horrible death. At the same time, bombs are set off in research labs dedicated to the develoment of artificial intelligence and a poisoned cake kills off Dr. Joseph Tagger's (Morgan Freeman) research team. Enter Agent Buchanan (Cillian Murphy) of the FBI to get on top of these acts of terrorism.
In desperation, Evelyn and Max race to save Will using an entirely experimental uploading technique that was attempted by the ill-fated Dr. Casey (Xander Berkley, who's murdered off in a matter of seconds), using the principle that a human mind may be able to provide the conscience and associative understanding that a computer simply would not acquire through (conventional) coding. And lo, Dr. Will Castor is reborn, entirely uploaded in to the computer and with only a short time to save himself from the extremeist group that kidnaps Dr. Waters and then tries to destroy the mainframe that Will Castor is housed within, along with the artificial intelligence that provides the framework to hold his conscience.
The story is pure science fiction and if you have a vague idea about subjects like true artifical intelligence and the development of nanotechnology and their applications, their representation really suggests that someone has been doing their homework, but the film throws that human element in there too, with certain gestures from Depp and pieces of dialogue that suggest that Dr. Will Castor is not actually in the machine anymore and is more likely entirely consumed by the PINN artificial intelligence matrix. And because of the way that Depp and Hall manage to maintain this remote chemistry throughout the majority of the film, not to mention the shock and awe of Tagger (Freeman) and Buchanan (Murphy) as they finally meet a disembodied Castor.
As the film's plot evolves and the fears that Castor is no longer 'Human' consume everyone, not to mention that a number of nanotechnologically enhanced folk are assisting at the facilities and exhibiting super human strength, stamina and, ultimately, uncharted biological and technological regenerative abilities, we are promised an explosive climax, which is delivered with a cherry on top.
This is a film that could easily be compared to Spike Jonze's 'Her' and, if you weren't interested in science fiction as being anything other than a tool for drama, I'd tell you to go see that pile of crap instead - I know people harp on about how amazing his grasp of mildly existential post-modernistic story-telling is, but if 'Her' was a science fiction piece, as opposed to romantic comedy, there'd actually be a story in it.
It's also worthy to point out that there really isn't a lot of films where the artifical intelligence is actually 'good'. Terminator, 2001: A space odyssey and so on paint a fairly bleak picture of our technological prodigy but there's very little to suggest we'll actually get it right. And then there's the subject of nanotech - a technology that would be our Garden of Plenty. The science by which, the fullness of time, would allow us the control of atomic structure; turn lead in to gold, water in to wine and air in to food. Now this is something that isn't explained in the film as well as its other concepts, the majority of the time it suggests that it's nothing more than a fancy 3D Printer with some funky medical applications, but by the end of the film they offer up the epic scale of what these sciences could achieve for us - something that outside of books has never really been attempted.
It's fair to say that I rooted for Depp throughout the entire film, finding time to despise even Freeman, Bettany and Murphy for their closed-minded characters, even Hall at one point.
But then the film gave me it's 10 rating by offering me an ending that I agreed with; it offered a post apocalyptic ending that was not because of some weird supernatural event, or because God smote us away with a meteor or some accident that was just gosh-darned unlucky. Between the cast (most of which evidently got the point of the story), the pace of the film, the special effects and the semi-controversial topics that come with the technology they're telling us about, not to mention the 'but if you were in his shoes, would you do anything any differently?' culminated to make a film I thoroughly enjoyed and is going to be perhaps one of the films that will join my Favourite Sci-Fi Films cluster.
As Frank Herbert once wrote,
'Fear is the Mind Killer...'
Turns out it does more than kill rational thinking. :D
This film comes with a 12 Certificate and is already available on DVD...