Here’s why the home release for Transcendence is big on talk and small on do.
The idea of a world gone mad has produced several great films over the past several years, including Oblivion, Ender’s Game, and Pacific Rim. In two of these, man deals with the end of his existence; in the other, man deals with the consequences of ending another species. In the case of Transcendence, we get to see the disaster as it unfolds, as man accidentally taints itself. The result is filled with messy storytelling and performances we want to like, and a cautionary tale that feels all used up. The home release staggers as well, delivering very good audio but suffering from a good but not great video transfer.
Artificial Intelligence researcher Will Caster (Johnny Depp) is one of several scientists leading the charge to incorporate man into machines. After coordinated attacks by home-grown terrorists, that apparatus is nearly destroyed, leaving several teams dead and Caster condemned to a slow irradiated end. A radical decision is made: merge science from the various labs to transfer Caster’s mind into a computer. His wife Evelyn (Rebecca Hall) and friend Max (Paul Bettany) eventually succeed, and Will’s consciousness is reborn. Without the of limitations of flesh, he’s able to regenerate cells, cure diseases, and purify water and the environment itself. But both the FBI – led by Agent Buchanan (Cillian Murphy) – and the terrorist leader Bree (Kate Mara) realize the inherent danger Will represents. As they face off, Evelyn must decide whether her husband’s digitized soul is more important than the survival of mankind.
Depp seems like an actor who relishes playing extreme characters, those who mock society with their antics but are somehow filled with a brilliance that someone eventually needs. Put him in a vanilla role like Will Caster and Depp seems like a fish out of water. His rather flat delivery is sometimes hard to hear, and he genuinely seems uncomfortable in several spots, as if he’s powerless to affect the plot holes developing around him. And there are a few: a messy timeline and poor attention paid to supporting actors leave us with the sense that Transcendence either suffered a huge edit or was reshot after test audiences initially rejected it. News that the marketing team added dramatic Morgan Freeman dialogue from another film just goes to show how even Hollywood was worried about its chances. Perhaps that concern was justified, as its typical dystopian cautionary tale never elevates itself into new territory. Consider an ending where man and machine CAN and DO work together to rescue the environment and cure diseases without taking your freedom of choice as a form of lifetime payment. That’s a future worth living for, and one we wish would have been explored here.
Having served as Christopher Nolan’s cinematographer for the Batman series, Pfister can orchestrate a pretty scene and fill it with believable A.I. But a film of this type must do more, and this is where Transcendence – a love story buried in a Science Fiction tale – ultimately fails. The idea of loved ones sacrificing for one another is a powerful but understated message here that gets lost in a squint-eyed distrust of tech gone awry. Transcendence‘s maturity arrives too late, thanks in turn to Writer Jack Paglen’s rather one dimensional script. And while I usually like Murphy, Bettany, and Morgan Freeman in other roles, here they become confusing pawns whose intentions are never fleshed out enough for us to care about what happens to them. Hall on the other hand is very good, devoted to her husband to a fault while ushering in a future where rotting and unpowered cities represent mankind’s legacy. As the film moves towards its bitter end, we’re given one final hope that Caster and Evelyn are somehow alive in the rain and water supply, which was infected with their hybrid DNA before the entire Internet was shut down. But while Transcendence’s dark tenets no doubt demonstrate our creative team’s desire to tell a gritty tale, its meandering script and largely uninspiring acting make it a lost opportunity on so many levels.
With a budget of $100 million and domestic theater receipts of around $25 million, Transcendence represented one of the biggest bombs of 2014. Those who braved it in theaters saw cautionary tale that takes on a Revolution-like climax, suffers a depressing change of heart in its final scene, all while desperately wanting to be intellectually superior to the standard future action flick. Unfortunately, Instagram fans were too busy uploading pictures of their dinners to notice, while anyone purchasing this release will notice the sloppy timeline, cluttered one-dimensional characters, and Depp’s out-of-sorts persona. Pfister’s first outing isn’t terrible, but its plot is typical Hollywood dystopia that fails to elevate the larger conversation about our increasing dependence upon machines.
The transfer for Transcendence is just as maddening as the film itself. On the one hand, the MPEG-4/AVC transfer looks in many spots like an award-winning cinematographer supervised the process himself. Colors are splendid throughout, from the rich tans of Freeman’s coat to the greens and blues of several forest scenes. Even the browns and graffiti of the fictitious town of Brightwood are elegant and clear. Details on our actors – such as the lines on Rebecca Hall’s face or the individual strands of hair on Depp’s head – can be easily viewed, while clothing and many outdoor scenes are enjoy the same treatment. Grain is also retained without losing any clarity. On the opposite end, Transcendence fails when blacks and shadows come out to play. They are easily lost whenever a decent light source (such as the diner scene at 52:16) is used instead of additional side lighting. We’re not ready to blame the transfer department at Warner Bros for this error, as other scenes such as the meeting between Evelyn and Tagger are beautifully colored and fully detailed. For all of Pfister’s esteemed background, it appears either he or his lighting team didn’t quite get that element down. As a result, our score reflects an admission that a transfer team can only do so much when a basic problem such as lighting rears its ugly head.
The one area where Transcendence hits all the marks lies in its well-balanced DTS-HD Master Audio Surround track. From the moment this film begins, you get all the elements of a complete audio experience. Sounds are expertly split, with each set of speakers successfully doing their jobs. The forward speakers have the common mix of dialogue and music, but it’s the effects which are broken down further. You don’t get atmospherics here – that’s the job of the surrounds – but instead all of the ‘forward’ effects such as explosions, car noise, and any other element that needs to be there to assist the story. The center channel emphasizes the dialogue but keeps the other sources buried but not hidden. As a result, dialogue is clearer than it was in the theaters, a majoy problem I had with film initially. The surround speakers do their job as well, lathering on the atmospherics whenever it can, giving us desert wind, the clinking of dishes in the diner, and the humming of machines when PINN is introduced. When the action finally gets started near film’s end, the LFE comes out to play with enough power to make you think you were watching The Dark Knight. The thundering of explosions, mortars, and gunfire are a welcomed edition, producing sheer power and jolting us out of our seats. To be fair, this is mostly due to the relative calm nature of the film; but when that moment comes out, we’re richly rewarded. I’ve said previously that surround tracks don’t need to be 7.1 for us to feel their weight and power – see our review of The Bourne Trilogy for proof. Here, that same experience is repeated and we’re all the better for it. In many ways, it proves that action-dramas can rise above preconceived expectations that their audio track be lax, for fear of startling audiences along the way.
Sadly, the supplements for Transcendence also fail to deliver, leaving out a much needed commentary track in lieu of features you’d get with any run-of-the-mill Blu-ray release. At least everything here is presented in HD:
- What is Transcendence? (5:20): The cast and crew discuss the reality of transferring a human into a machine and its social and ethical implications. It’s too short for any real discussion to occur.
- Wall Pfister – A Singular Vision (2:52): Again another paper-thin featurette, this time of Director Pfister. There’s lot of testimonials but nothing about how his experience as a director paved the way to his first outing as a director.
- Guarding the Threat (2:18): More of an EPX-style sizzle real than anything meaningful about the dangers of a sentient OS, this featurette recycles the same scenes from the other featurettes.
- The Promise of A.I. (2:34): One value of the film – its timely discussion of the real science being performed in the arena of Artificial Intelligence – is played out in yet another all-too-brief sizzle reel commercial with the cast and advisers to the movie.
- It’s Me (1:02): This was part of a viral campaign for the film.
- Singularity (1:09): A second viral video for the film narrated by Morgan Freeman, this is probably the best selection from the supplements.
- R.I.F.T. (0:58): A cautionary message from the ‘terrorist’ organization R.I.F.T., narrated by Kate Mara.
- Trailers: Too bad these two trailers for the film (each are 2:34) were more interesting than the film itself. The second one contains the now-infamous addition of dialogue by Freeman from another film (thanks to Gamma Squad for this story).
Our evaluation copy arrived as a Blu-ray/DVD Combo which includes an Ultraviolet Digital Copy. The colorful slipcase is not embossed and there is no interior artwork. At the time of this posting, we were not aware of any special editions offered within the US.
In the end, I can’t recommend Transcendence for anything other than a rental or on Netflix. Its messy timeline, poor character development, and uninspiring acting makes for a pretty meh experience. The home release is similarly uneven, with a set of supplements that offer nothing to engage viewers on the real debate behind A.I. Much like the film itself, Transcendence‘s arrival onto Blu-ray amounts to lost opportunity, even though we give it high marks for audio. Skip this one unless you’re a die-hard Depp fan or the idea of computer love is one of your special fetishes.
Transcendence is rated PG-13 for sci-fi action and violence, some bloody images, brief strong language and sensuality. and has a runtime of 119 minutes.