It’s no surprise that the first film directed by ace cinematographer Wally Pfister should look so handsome, even if Jess Hall actually did the camerawork. It’s just too bad that the script for “Transcendence,” also a debut, from writer Jack Paglen, doesn’t measure up to the visuals.
Basically this is a Frankenstein movie with computers instead of corpses, an updated version of “Colossus: The Forbin Project” (1970) with a soupcon of “A.I.” thrown in for good measure. Johnny Depp stars as Dr. Will Caster, a genius who’s fashioned PINN (Physically Independent Neural Network), a computer that, to all intents and purposes, seems to be self-aware. Unfortunately, he and the scientists working along related lines have become the targets of a violent underground group called RIFT (Revolutionary Independence from Technology), led by a stern blonde do-gooder named Bree (Kate Mara), that fears a loss of individual privacy and freedom if artificial intelligence plans reach fruition. So RIFT aims to assassinate all the researchers in a series of simultaneous attacks, and Will is shot—wounded with a bullet that only grazes him but turns out to be dosed with radioactivity that will kill him in a matter of weeks.
That gives Will, his supportive wife Evelyn (Rebecca Hall) and their friend and fellow scientist Max (Paul Bettany) time to implant Will’s consciousness into his super-computer. But though Max gradually doubts the propriety of what they’re doing and decamps (only to be taken prisoner by Bree and her associates), Evelyn succeeds, and before long the increasingly powerful though disembodied Will has directed her to a small desert town, where they buy up all the land (using funds that Will simply appropriates via electronic transfers) and hire locals, notably contractor Mark (Clifton Collins, Jr.), to help them build a huge underground facility where Will can expand his reach and fulfill his vision of improving the world. That will eventually involve literally rebuilding damaged human bodies, but also connecting the patients to Will so that they can interface with him, hear his instructions and be regenerated as necessary. Will also begins projects designed to purify the world’s water and reinvigorate its flora and fauna. Evelyn is with him—or with the image of his old self Will projects onto screens to make her transition easier—every step of the way.
Of course, RIFT—which has convinced Max of the danger posed by a “big brother” Will—is concerned about these developments, and so, after “meeting” Will, are his old friend Joseph Tagger (Morgan Freeman) and FBI Agent Buchanan (Cillian Murphy), who decide to set aside their difference with RIFT and join forces to take Compu-Will down. The process will involve infecting “him” with a virus. But a means of delivering it must be contrived. Could Evelyn’s increasing disquiet over her husband’s plans provide the answer?
Pfister, Hall and production designer Chris Seagers, as well as the other craft artists—the art direction team led by Dawn Swiderski and a quintet of set designers and decorators—have fashioned an impressively sterile underground unit for the disembodied Will to preside over, and the little cubicles with mechanical arms engaged in various jobs, as well as the vast array of solar panels at ground level to provide power, are impressive fabrications. “Transcendence” is often a striking visual experience.
But once past the surface gloss, the film has little to engage us. The narrative is little more than a modern Luddite fable so puerile in conception that it rivals “V for Vendetta” in lack of intellectual depth. (It also makes the elementary blunder of showing us, in a brief prologue, the outcome of the story and then moving into flashback mode to tell it—which means, of course, that there’s nary a hint of surprise at the close.) The pacing is lethargic—there are entirely too many scenes of Evelyn walking around in a daze, uncertain about what to do—and the editing is unduly solemn, practically inviting us to consider the irony of a portentous warning about the dangers of technology delivered through all of cinema’s most advanced technological tricks. Or maybe things were weighed down by the presence of no fewer than fourteen producers–always a bad sign, even if one of them was Christopher Nolan, for whom Pfister has often served as cinematographer.
Add to that the fact that Pfister, for all his talents, doesn’t appear to have much of a way with actors. Depp gives his dullest performance in years; one doesn’t expect Jack Sparrow in a role like this, but there should be some sign of life behind those dreamy eyes, especially in Will’s pre-death scenes. Meanwhile Hall comes across as similarly benumbed—those myriad sequences of her wandering aimlessly, usually shot rather unflatteringly from behind, become especially tiresome. Bettany is bland, while Freeman is nothing more than Freeman—calm, sonorous and dull. In fact, the only person who makes much of an impression is Mara, and it’s a negative one: she manages to make Bree so irritatingly smug that you want to slap her.
There might have been a moment in time when “Transcendence” would have seemed relevant and thoughtful, but if so it’s long past. Now Pfister’s directorial debut comes across as far behind the curve, and the soporific treatment keeps it resolutely earthbound, despite all the visual luster.