Transcendence has lofty goals for a high-profile blockbuster. It attempts to address a deep philosophical question – what, is it exactly that makes us human? – in a film that is part sci-fi adventure, part action-thriller and part ominous warning, as well as having a strong emotional arc that connects all of these different threads. In short, it’s the kind of film that attempts to both blow you away and make you think about the world around you, but with so many different elements competing for equal screen time, it doesn’t quite manage to transcend (sorry) the high expectations it establishes for itself, even if it does succeed in creating an exciting, entertaining experience.
The film centers on Dr. Will Caster (Johnny Depp), a brilliant scientist who has been working alongside his wife Evelyn (Rebecca Hall) to develop a sentient, omniscient artificial intelligence that will eventually know more about the universe than it is possible for humanity as a collective to ever understand. Their goal is to use this knowledge to cure disease and heal the planet, but the anti-technology terrorist organization RIFT wants to stop their work before it goes too far. However, their assassination attempt gives Evelyn and Will’s best friend Max (Paul Bettany) the push they need to finish his research, and they successfully manage to upload Will’s consciousness onto their AI.
It’s then that Transcendence really takes off, as the first act takes its time establishing the science behind the film and the laws in which everything functions. It’s a necessary, if somewhat slow, process, but it all pays off once Depp is off screen – or rather, on a computer screen (sorry, jeez) – and the stakes are raised, with Will quickly becoming smarter, more powerful, and more dangerous than Max and Evelyn could have anticipated.
Though Depp is the marquee name, he’s easily overshadowed by his co-stars, who carry the film’s emotional thread and do the bulk of the heavy lifting. The real star is Hall, whose blind devotion to her husband and his work slowly gives way to an understanding of the reality of what they’ve done. As Evelyn is truly the protagonist of the film, to whom we adhere the entire way, Hall is permitted to showcase the small, quiet changes that her character undergoes, perfectly befitting of the large span of time that the film covers. Though she's long been a underappreciated talent, giving wonderful performances in smaller films, her work here will hopefully earn her the kind of attention she deserves.
Warner Bros. Entertainment
But if the main character of the film is Evelyn, the one that the audience most identifies with is Max, who is torn between his devotion to his friends and his understanding of the dangers of letting things go too far. Bettany subtly plays out that internal conflict in all of his scenes, and even though Max is the least developed of the three main characters, he makes it easy to root for him. Depp, meanwhile, is relatively flat as Will, although he does have some truly terrifying moments as the AI, delivering his lines in a calm, soothing manner that hints at the inhuman coldness that lurks beneath the surface.
As the characters’ perspectives shift and change, so does your allegiance. Transcendence’s ability to manipulate the way the audience views these characters and their goals without making it obvious is one of the film’s strengths. It’s also the main source of tension, which make the few full-on action sequences even more exciting, as you’re never quite sure who you want to have the upper hand.
And yet, despite the edge-of-your-seat action, the engrossing personal relationships and interior conflicts and the beautifully shot scenery, there’s something missing from Transcendence to make it a truly satisfying experience, most likely due to the fact that the film attempts to pack so much into its 119-minute run time that certain threads are left hanging. At one point, the film jumps ahead in time by two years. While it’s necessary for the events of the third act to unfold properly, everything that isn’t Evelyn and Will's storyline gets short-changed, and it feels as if a massive piece of the plot gets left behind.
Similarly, many of the supporting characters are flimsy and one-note, with Kate Mara’s RIFT leader Bree suffering the most. The script does a cursory job of explaining her reasoning for starting the organization, but from there, she fades into the background, occasionally chiming in with a plan or a threat. Ultimately, Wally Pfister's directorial debut falls somewhat flat, and all of the stunning visuals and compelling performances can't quite make up for the fact that the pieces just don't click together in the right way.
But it's the pieces themselves — the minimalist computer labs contrasting with lush forests, the thrilling chases and the quiet character moments, and a truly exciting last-minute twist — that make Transcendence an experience well worth having. It might leave you a little cold in the end, but the journey you take to get there just about makes up for it.
Summit Entertainment via Everett Collection
When a movie opts to play inside baseball with a particular industry, it runs two risks: alienating the people outside looking in ("What the hell is all this mumbo jumbo?"), or alienating the people tightly connected to the underworld on display ("They got it all wrong!"). On special occasions, you have a film like Draft Day, which strikes out in both areas, somehow feigning expertise with such vigor as to befuddle strangers to behind-the-scenes football and frustrate those with an inborn knowledge of the underworld. As a member of the former community, I was bored stiff by the nonstop industry jabber. I was surprised to find, after our viewing of the movie, that a sports-savvy friend was even more aggravated with the film for everything they got so very, very wrong.
But really, neither of these is the true crime of Draft Day. Even on the promise of delivering a bona fide curtain pull on the NFL, all the film really owes us is a good story. Instead, Draft Day banks on the appeal of its would-be authenticity — this is how football people talk, act, eat, do business, grimace, throw laptops on draft day! — as a stand-in for any material we might otherwise be able to care about. The film slaps Kevin Costner's Sonny Weaver Jr., beleaguered general manager of the Cleveland Browns, with just about every go-to leading man conflict in the book (problems at work, problems with his girlfriend, problems with his family) in hopes that something will land in the neighborhood of emotional legitimacy... or, more plausibly, in hopes that it'll play enough like an attempt at a screenplay to warrant all the stats talk he's really there to spout.
His supporting cast has even less to do — Jennifer Garner is his all smiles romantic partner whose vehement love for football is supposed to make her interesting to us (What?! But she's a girl!). Ellen Burstyn is Sonny's disapproving mother, who has a penchant for wistful staring. Denis Leary is a coach who yells a lot.
Summit Entertainment via Everett Collection
The one vein of character work that stands out as a near success comes attached to the line of potential drafts. Josh Pence plays draft frontrunner Bo Callahan who Sonny has a bad feeling about. Chadwick Boseman is the underdog linebacker who we know we're supposed to like because he takes his nephews to gymnastics. In a post-Moneyball world, Sonny is accessing the humanity in the boys he's considering for a career on his field. Hell, he's even willing to overlook the troubled past of Arian Foster because he trusts the boy's dad (I think Terry Crews is contractually obligated to appear in any movie about football). It's thin material that amounts to a disjointed explosion, but it rings as the movie's most interesting stuff. Unfortunately, it's couriered through Sonny, a character who we're barely allowed to meet.
The tragedy of this conclusion is that most of the cast members, Costner included, are giving moreover enjoyable performances — accolades in particular to 25-year-old Griffin Newman as fish-out-of-water intern Rick, suffering through the worst first day of work imaginable. The small comedy offered by Newman and a few others (bullpen fixtures like Wade Williams and Veep's Timothy Simons) is treated like an occasional garnish, but amounts to much-craved sustenance when it pervades the tasteless and stale football blather.
Blather that will detract anybody just hoping to catch a fun sports movie, and blather that will turn off the most high-minded of football fans craving some degree of industrial accuracy. In either case, the blather exists in absence of much otherwise. Without any real characters operating in this dense, hectic, ostensibly colorful world of the NFL, it feels as vacant as Sun Life Stadium on opening weekend. (Right?)
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