Film Review: ‘Transcendence’

Transcendence

Christopher Nolan d.p. Wally Pfister takes a spin in the director's chair for this heavy-handed sci-fi cautionary tale.

Transcendence” is a most curious name for a movie that never shakes free from those hoary old cliches about the evils of technology and the danger by which man plays at becoming a god. The man in question here is Johnny Depp, whose listless lead performance as a brilliant scientist in the field of artificial intelligence does little to aid this overplotted, dramatically undernourished debut feature from longtime Christopher Nolan d.p. Wally Pfister. Arriving at a crowded spring box office, the pic will test Depp’s drawing power outside of the Disney franchise factory, before weak word of mouth and “The Amazing Spider-Man 2” send it packing.

One of the manifold pleasures of Spike Jonze’s “Her” was how elegantly it shrugged off decades of speculative fiction in which technological progress correlated to a loss of human individualism. In its place was the delightful suggestion that, rather than battling us for domination, artificial intelligence might join us in romantic bliss, and then, having had its fill, journey off in search of some more fulfilling destiny in the cosmos. But in “Transcendence,” which might have been titled “Him,” it’s very much back to square one: the culture of technophobia that gave us the predatory mainframes and cyborgs of “2001,” “Demon Seed” and “Alien,” and that early ’90s wave of cyber-paranoia thrillers (“The Net,” “The Lawnmower Man,” “Virtuosity”) that now seem as quaint as dial-up Internet.

Some might add to that list the collective work of James Cameron, almost all of which involves the fusion of man and machine; except, in Cameron’s case, technology is just as often friend as foe, and in any event an inevitability that we can’t reasonably be expected to live without. Yet, when “Transcendence” begins in some unspecified near-future year, the plug has been pulled on that whole crazy information superhighway. Abandoned cell phones litter the streets like tumbleweeds in an old Western; computer keyboards make for convenient door stops. Our narrator (Paul Bettany) reports of an “unstoppable collision between mankind and technology,” and then begins to unfurl his tale of woe. Fittingly, we are in Berkeley, that hallowed hippie enclave where the coming of chain stores was once seen as a sign of cultural apocalypse, until a more immediate threat arrived in the form of Silicon Valley one-percenters.

The movie then flashes back five years and introduces us to Depp’s unsubtly named Dr. Will Caster and his wife and fellow researcher, Evelyn (Rebecca Hall). That the Casters have not (yet) fully sold their souls to demon science is evinced by Will’s building of a copper-encased “technology-free zone” in the backyard of the couple’s picture-perfect craftsman home. But meanwhile, back at the lab, the Casters are hard at work on a sentient machine called PINN (Physically Independent Neural Network), which takes up an entire room (like the all-knowing super-computer from “Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory”) and converses in a female droid monotone that sounds like HAL 9000’s premenstrual sister.

Not everyone, it seems, is thrilled with this idea. In the course of a single day — a kind of cyber-9/11 — a series of coordinated terror attacks lays waste to the best and brightest in the A.I. community. Will himself takes a bullet to the belly but makes an incredibly speedy recovery, only to learn that the bullet was laced with radiation and now, like the poisoned man of the classic noir “D.O.A.,” he’s living on borrowed time. Rather hurriedly (as it has a habit of doing), the screenplay by first-timer Jack Paglen introduces the notion that, just as one might save a video or music file to a hard drive, so might we do the same with an entire human consciousness. And so, with some help from their best scientist friend (Bettany), the Casters spend Will’s dying days digitizing the good doctor’s noggin for posterity.

Thus “Transcendence” arrives at that old, irresolvable conundrum: Is it live or is it Memorex? Staring out from a bank of computer monitors, the digital Will looks and sounds awfully like the old one — and yet, as with George Romero’s zombies, looks can be deceiving. This new Will isn’t content to stay contained on one (massive) server. He wants to stretch his bits and bytes, to be uploaded into the cloud (and not only, one suspects, so that he can debate philosophy with Alan Watts). And Evelyn, who wants more than anything to believe that her husband is still somehow alive, happily obliges. Appearing periodically to offer grave prognoses is Morgan Freeman (one of several members of the Nolan stock company who appear here), once more cast as the wise, weary Voice of Reason.

There are intriguing, half-formed ideas afoot in “Transcendence,” but the script and Pfister’s heavy, humorless direction tend to reduce everything to simplistic standoffs between good and evil — or, in this case, heartless technocrats and crunchy-granola resistance fighters known as RIFT (Revolutionary Independence From Technology) and led by plucky martyr-in-training Bree (Kate Mara). Take that, PINN. The bigger problem is that all the characters on both sides are so uniformly bland and lifeless that one can hardly tell the flesh-and-blood humans from the army of man/machine “hybrids” Will begins assembling with his suddenly infinite powers (including, for murkily defined reasons, the ability to manipulate real-world organic matter). Imagine a version of “Invasion of the Body Snatchers” in which the aliens arrive to discover a world of anodyne pod people already in place.

It’s a bit of a cliche (which doesn’t make it untrue) that when cameramen turn to directing, they make movies long on visual splendor and short on storytelling. In any case, most who make the transition (Jack Cardiff, Haskell Wexler, Gordon Willis, John Bailey, Dean Semler) eventually go back to shooting for others. With “Transcendence,” Pfister has certainly delivered a good-looking, well-produced picture, albeit one lacking in the memorable images he has supplied in excess in Nolan’s employ. (Pfister’s d.p. of choice, Jess Hall, is big on sun flares and slow-mo water droplets.) More critically, he’s made a movie empty of feeling, even as it labors to convince us that the entire future of the human race is hanging in the balance. There is, at the story’s center, an attempt at a grand, doomed sci-fi romance between Will and Evelyn, but one need only think back to David Cronenberg’s remake of “The Fly,” or Nolan’s own “Inception,” to see how short “Transcendence” falls on this particular score.

Presented with much the same challenge as Scarlett Johansson in “Her” — to play a character who, for most of the movie, exists only as a disembodied voice (and, in this case, a flickering face on a screen) — Depp fails to convey any real sense of the passion and curiosity that supposedly drive Will Caster to do what he does. The gravely beautiful Hall (who was, along with Johansson, one of the women caught up in the epic magicians’ duel in Nolan’s “The Prestige”) seems to have been directed to deliver her entire performance in an unwavering state of glassy-eyed anxiety. Indeed, long before the Web goes bust, “Transcendence” has already flatlined.

Composer Mychael Danna rattles the speakers of the new Dolby Atmos sound system with a score that combines lush string arrangements and occasional electronic twangs, whenever the basso profundo sound design isn’t doing same.

Film Review: 'Transcendence'

Reviewed at Dolby 88, New York, April 8, 2012. MPAA Rating: PG-13. Running time: 119 MIN.

Production

A Warner Bros. release of an Alcon Entertainment presentation in association with DMG Entertainment of a Straight Up Films production. Produced by Andrew A. Kosove, Broderick Johnson, Kate Cohen, Marisa Polvino, Annie Marter, David Valdes, Aaron Ryder. Executive producers, Christopher Nolan, Emma Thomas, Dan Mintz. Co-producers, Yolanda T. Cochran, Steven P. Wegner, Regency Boies, Scott Robertson.

Crew

Directed by Wally Pfister. Screenplay, Jack Paglen. Camera (color, Technicolor prints, widescreen, 35mm), Jess Hall; editor, David Rosenbloom; music, Mychael Danna; music supervisor, Deva Anderson; production designer, Chris Seagers; supervising art director, Dawn Swiderski; art directors, Thomas O. Frohling, Gregory Hooper, Bjarne Sletteland, Clint Wallace; set decorator, Gene Serdena; set designers, Ricardo Guillermo, Siobhan Roome, Sally Thornton, Ron Yates; costume designer, George L. Little; sound (Datasat/Dolby Atmos/Dolby Digital), Willie D. Burton; sound designer, Mark Mangini; re-recording mixers, Jeremy Peirson, Terry Porter; visual effects supervisor, Nathan McGuinness; visual effects producer, Mike Chambers; visual effects, Double Negative; stunt coordinators, Darrin Prescott, Wade Allen; associate producer, Brad Arensman; assistant director, Scott Robertson; casting, John Papsidera.

With

Johnny Depp, Rebecca Hall, Paul Bettany, Cillian Murphy, Kate Mara, Cole Hauser, Morgan Freeman, Clifton Collins Jr., Cory Hardrict, Falk Hentschel, Josh Stewart, Luce Rains, Fernando Chien, Steven Liu, Xander Berkeley, Lukas Haas.

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  1. Yokeena Jamar says:

    What?!?!?!?
    I can not believe the bad reviews! floored by the reviews of “Transcendence” this movie was brilliant. I personally think some have clearly missed the mark. Now I must admit, an hour into the film I had to reach for some caffeine but by far this movie had the best ending I’ve seen in a long time. So I just simply want to comment on the ending. Those of you who read this and haven’t seen it, I suggest you not read further because I’m about to ruin it for you!
    Evelyn in position to what she believes “save humanity” in a private moment with Will, as he realizes her wishes have changed, the wishes to
    End what she has dreamed for and longed for, will does what she asks. At The moment of infecting himself, Evelyn realizes that what she thought was will truly was him…will looks her in the eye and says “we are in the garden, imagine us there”. Omg! So this computer conscience Will was pure consciousness in “thought form” as so they become one as they transcend themselves to the garden where the copper keeps out all things from interfering with the biological makeup of organic matter. Her tear falls as a droplet of water that contains their consciousness (because they imagined themselves there) falls from the copper onto another organic object (the flower) and lives again and quite frankly I saw a sequel from the compounds that were straddling about in the water molecules. What an awesome husband…This was a Shakespeare kind of ending. A love story first, then a science fiction movie. It was just beautiful. Hats off to beautiful filmmaking.
    Btw. I am a film student and writer….loved it!

  2. The concept of a coming “Technological Singularity” (look it up on Wikipedia) is certainly compelling. Imagine uploading your consciousness into a digital platform, neuron by neuron. Could you thus transcend your physical existence and live forever in cyberspace? Or would it not REALLY be you, just a copy of you? This raises all kinds of provocative questions about the nature of consciousness, identity, and even what we commonly call the soul. The old SyFy series “Caprica” did an interesting job depicting a world on the cusp of a technological singularity, and Charles Stross’ novel “Accelerando” explores where all this might be heading in our own future. While the concept has prophets like Ray Kurzwiel, it also has plenty of detractors who dismiss it as some kind of “Geek Rapture.”

    This new film, “Transcendence,” apparently aspired toward exploring the concept of the technological singularity, and I was looking forward to seeing it. But now, as I sort through the mostly negative reviews, it seems that what MIGHT have been a compelling, visionary film ultimately turns little more than just another SFX-driven techno-thriller.

  3. KB says:

    Depp has had flop after flop for the past several years. Some of his movies have made money, but they have all been critically panned. He needs a new agent or maybe a reality check… Or acting lessons? Hard to believe studios continue to pay him big bucks for so little return.

    • Chris says:

      He actually only had 2 flops recently. Why does he need a reality check? Reality check to stop doing movies? He’s a great actor and he is always capable of giving good performances.

      So little return? Are you kidding me? Do you think what he does is really that easy? You are the one who really needs a reality check here. He’s JOHNNY DEPP, he will always get paid huge paychecks. He’s got his own production company for god’s sake.

  4. Beat Me Up says:

    I read this script and it seemed slightly lifeless, but what really ruins it is transposing 2014/eco-politics in something set in the future. It drains life from the work. The idea is use your imagination not your politics. Good review, though I disagree with the Depp comments, he was merely interrupting the script.

  5. Christine says:

    This review makes me want to see the film as I trust the people who made the film and the cast in it, way more than I do the critic.

  6. Chris Tomlin says:

    “Demon Seed?”
    “Terminator?”
    “2001?”
    “Lawnmower Man?”
    I don’t think you’re going back far enough for your technophobia/playing-God dystopian visions.
    How about the 1953 sci-fi classic “Donovan’s Brain?”
    First thing I thought of.

  7. Well says:

    I feel like people are having something against Depp lately that they just want to see him flop. Am i right?

  8. Julienne says:

    Drawing Power? See Tonto.

  9. Ralcarbo says:

    sometimes an idea is better on paper

  10. Somebody in the comment section wrote “terrible review”. But I disagree! This review answered everything I wondered about this movie, and now I have second thoughts about seeing it.

  11. Stan says:

    But we got the Phister?! You mean DPs aren’t directors? Aw Hollywood I just want to pinch your cheek. Next time try the key grip.

  12. iamborghue says:

    DRAT! I was hoping this would be a great film. I liked the previews and still plan on seeing it but this review has made me a bit disappointed. Oh well, I guess Captain America will be triumphant again.

  13. Asronce says:

    Producers who hold their films from prescreening do so to avoid loss ticket sales on opening weekend. This is huge red flag which is a shame as there was high expectations for Depp and the film. Variety’s astute preview may have cost them ten million dollars on Friday at the box-office. Perhaps it will recoup some it’s losses from video.

  14. Glenn C. says:

    There are so many good scripts out there that never see the light of day and yet these get made! Why? Because of connections and a good agent that can sell! It’s unfair! Typical unfairness!

    • Yirmin says:

      Reality check my friend. Connections and nepotism are rampant everywhere. Nothing wins on its own merits anymore. Even if you in your garage made the best movie of all time it would never get out there unless you had been squeezed from the right scrotum… is it unfair? Yes but nothing is going to change it.

  15. James says:

    You obviously have something aginst Depp and want the movie to fail.

    • Beat Me Up says:

      Well, Yirmin, as someone who writes spec scripts in H/wood in the hopes of finding representation, I must disagree (I shoot docs on the side too, though I just collect gigs of HD at this juncture.) You must keep hope alive. It is pretty much impossible to break through, though it does happen. There was once a tedious little film called ‘Primer’ that was shot on 10gs (in a garage), and it broke through. The filmmaker is (apparently), a complicated man; and thus he recedes into darkness. I saw Primer recently, thought it would have worked better as a power point presentation. It’s a good time to be a screenwriter, it’s just happens to be run by Wall Street so it’s tough to reach the beach, but writers must write regardless.

  16. Paul says:

    Terrible review.

  17. F S N says:

    Reblogged this on The Now.

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