Reading Transcendence’s virtual (dis)reality

Director: Wally Pfister
Screenplay: Jack Paglen
Cast: Johnny Depp, Morgan Freeman, Rebecca Hall, Kate Mara, Cillian Murphy, Cole Hauser, and Paul Bettany

A science-fiction film starring Johnny Depp (and also [the] Morgan Freeman) with Christopher Nolan as executive producer and a script included in the 2012 edition of The Black List (which, by the way, is a list of the best unproduced scripts handpicked by film executives) would have definitely sounded brilliant and full of potential. However, we all come to realize that once in a while, even blockbuster elements lead to lackluster results. Transcendence had it all, or so we thought.


The directorial debut of award-winning cinematographer Wally Pfister (yes, he is Nolan’s cinematographer and collaborator since Memento) features a narrative that compels its audience to ultimately reflect on the dynamics of technology and humanity, as leading artficial intelligence (AI) researcher Dr. Will Caster (Johnny Depp) ‘transcended’ the limits of AI technology by being able to convert and upload his consciousness online (following his death by radioactive contamination after being shot by an anti-AI terrorist) with the help of his wife and fellow researcher, Evelyn (Rebecca Hall). But as the now-virtual Will moves to create technological singularity under the guise of a ‘technological utopia’ called Brightwood, Evelyn faces a struggle between being with her husband and saving humanity from the perils of advanced technology.


Transcendence poses the perennial question of the limit between modern technology and human life. Technology had played an immense role in our development as a species and in shaping the course of human history. We are now living a life of convenience and connectivity, yet technology is ever-changing and evolves faster than we can actually imagine. But what if technology can do so much more — like generating superhuman ability, or even revival from death? What if technology eventually replaces human existence? This is the hypothetical scenario called “technological singularity,” defined by Hungarian-American mathematician John von Neumann as a time when “technological progress will become incomprehensibly rapid and complicated.”


Discourse on singularity and on its implications for human capability and existence — even I myself could not be able to provide an ample discussion of the idea to accompany this review. However, a side of the discourse has been depicted horribly in Transcendence – the virtual Will Caster was everywhere, and with everyone. (It’s really creepy, right?) Some critics dismiss the film to have conveyed a technophobic message, which was clearly embodied by the neo-Luddite terrorist group Revolutionary Independence From Technology (R.I.F.T.), led by Bree (Kate Mara). Whichever side on the discourse you choose, let us leave this discussion in this article with a reminder to weigh the pros and cons of using technology in our lives. (Can I breathe now?)


Unless you are a technology geek, a computer science or mathematics major, or a hardcore science-fiction fan (unfortunately, I am none of the above), Transcendence is not as promising as its Depp-Nolan credit would seem to have instantly provided. The film sounded and felt dull all throughout, which many be a reflection of the coldness of a machine-driven world. With great science-fictions capping off 2013 (read: Gravity and Her), Transcendence lacked heart-stopping and mind-blowing moments, which would have saved its seemingly blank screen execution.

Pfister’s remarkable talent as a cinematographer remains evident in his first work as a full-fledged director, and the one thing that I personally loved about the film is Pfister’s macro and bokeh shots, which added a human touch in a film which was full of processors and codes. We could just hope that the great Mr. Nolan could share his talent with his favorite collaborator.

MNL Film Club Score: 2.5