Technology bad, Igor.
Staged and paced like a 1950s widescreen spectacle, Transcendence is dressed up with spiffy visual effects and is filled with portents about an impending apocalyptic future. Yet it revolves around an old-school message: Be careful what you wish for. Or, to paraphrase Forbidden Planet: Beware the Id!
Johnny Depp lends his barely-breathing star presence for what proves to be a supporting role as Will Caster, a brilliant scientist working in the field of artificial intelligence. In essence, his goal is to create a sentient computer. He works with his wife Evelyn (Rebecca Hall) and his best friend Max (Paul Bettany), and is close to a breakthrough when he is assaulted by a militant terrorist group that warns the scientists are taking technology too far. (Perhaps they’ve been watching too many Terminator movies?) They are determined to snuff out all such advanced experiments in artificial intelligence.
It turns out that Will was dosed with radiation poisoning, and is given just a short time to live, a double tragedy since he and Evelyn enjoy a once-in-a-lifetime type of romantic love. Evelyn works feverishly to transfer Will’s conciousness into a bank of computers, even after Will dies, and finally triumphs, mere seconds before the terrorists arrive. Ignoring the threats, as well as Max’s cautionary words that there’s no way to know how much of Will’s consciousness has actually made the jump, Evelyn rushes away, as Will suddenly becomes a power-mad being who wants to transform the world.
The screenplay, credited entirely to Jack Paglen (his first produced feature), fails to create convincing characters: Will’s motivation as a human appears to be simple curiosity, without considering the ramifications of his work; his motivation as a machine is driven entirely by unknown algorithms. Despite her alleged brilliance, Evelyn is drawn as a 1950s housewife, blindly loyal to her husband and his wishes, even after he is “dead.”
Then there’s the terrorist group, led by the fanatical Bree (Kate Mara). They are unapologetic murderers, kidnappers, and torturers — not to mention mass property destroyers — yet are soon drawn into the bosom of the federal government (in the person of Cillian Murphy) because, according to the film, sometimes you have to be a terrorist to get things done right.
Beyond the insulting characterizations, the film also relies on narrative tropes that recall simple-minded blockbusters such as 1996’s Independence Day. While that might appeal to those with a taste for broad entertainment, Transcendence is too pretentious to stoop very far in that direction. Delivering neither intellectual nor visceral thrills, the film quickly becomes a tiresome drag to sit through.
Wally Pfister, here making his directorial debut, is an accomplished cinematographer, a longtime collaborator with Christopher Nolan, and a superb visual artist. In making the transition to the director’s chair, however, he is unable to stir up much interest beyond the academic. Even more insoluble is the conundrum of Depp’s performance; imagine a version of 2001: A Space Odyssey in which HAL is the lead actor, and then dial that down for an approximation of the vacuum at the heart of this film.
A modest, low-budget version might have served the material better. Or, maybe it was doomed from the start, judging by its fatalistic opening sequence. In any event, Transcendence doesn’t transcend anything.
Transcendence opens wide across Dallas and Ft. Worth on Friday, April 18.