Transcendence is a visually impressive film sporting perfectly framed shots and wondrous staging, as veteran cinematographer Wally Pfister transitions into his first directorial role, but while cameras capture every moment with graceful whimsy, Pfister struggles to bring life to this techno thriller beyond captivating aesthetics. As a cinematographer, it wasn’t Wally’s job to ensure characters exhibited life, or to curate a narrative story that seamlessly flows from scene to scene – a lesson unfortunately learned the hard way. What starts as a looming, informative warning for our technologically obsessed social doomsday machine ends up being nothing but a convoluted love story between some computer program and a widow in denial. Transcendence could have been a more grounded version of the Terminator movies, but ends up being a two hour long public service announcement about THE EVIL INTERNET that’s about as entertaining as reading binary code.
Dr. Will Caster (Johnny Depp) is the foremost authority on Artificial Intelligence, dedicating his life to developing a sentient machine capable of collecting all the information known to man while also displaying a full range of human emotions. Basically, Caster wants to create a machine that can think, and he’s aided by his wife Evelyn (Rebecca) and best friend Max (Paul Bettany). Not everyone believes technology should have cognitive abilities though, and a group of radical terrorists attempt to assassinate Will after a presentation. Poisoned and left for dead, Evelyn and Max debate whether to keep Will alive by using his very own research, “uploading” him into a computer database, but after they do, Will starts to express an interest to collect every morsel of data on Earth, controlling all that he touches. Did Evelyn and Max just doom mankind by saving their husband and friend?
Teasing a doomed end from moment one, Transcendence opens in a dystopian time when technology has been blacked out as we know it. Paul Bettany’s character Max explains that technology has vanished, but without screens to distract our every move, civilization’s eyes opened to natural beauty. From here, we jump backwards in time to Dr. Will Caster’s research, an unfortunate attempt on his life, and his inevitable “transcendence” – defined as an experience beyond the physical level. Will’s intellect is open to every single channel of data our universe holds (as long as it’s networked), and he starts consuming every information-filled cookie he can.
Imaginative and intriguing right? It’s as if Will hacked into the Matrix, but instead of entering a hardcoded fantasy world, his limitless thirst for complete enlightenment threatens our established existence. While Dr. Caster’s face appears on every monitor, a computer is still making decisions – conforming humans into one robotic race, using nanotechnology to spread and multiply molecule by molecule, and eventually controlling every inch of life for a “perfect” version of Earth. Clean drinking water, repopulated forests, superhuman people, and a complete loss of willpower – welcome to the equivalent of a sci-fi Pleasantville.
Described above is a near-perfect horror movie. The way robotics and biological research are going, we’re probably only a few years away from thinking, conscious robots attempting to relate with human emotion – a task many refuse to trust for good reason. Thus the debate between pro-robot thinkers and terrified aluminum-foil-hat-wearing conspiracy theorists ignites, arguing robots should be kept programmable and controlled. A computerized program without sympathy and an understanding of free will becomes the scariest monster of all, networking every living being on earth to create some uniform unit of dead-eyed Jonestown cultists without understanding how sadly tragic such a society would be. This, of course, is what Transcendence SHOULD have been.
Enter Johnny Depp’s transition into computer mode, using his wife Evelyn as a gullible, unaware puppet. Depp’s avatar conjures bank accounts in her name worth billions of dollars, the digital husband and wife duo buy an entire small town, have a secret underground lair built, and start converting followers for the Church of Caster. This is where our anti-technology terrorists (led by Kate Mara) kick into overdrive, enlisting Max’s expertise as programmer. A battle of epic proportions presents itself, tensions mount, and our mouths water until Max reveals humanity’s only hope – turning off THE INTERNET. Facepalm, flip desk, and enter rage mode – that’s the movie’s big theme. The internet is to blame for all our problems. That’s the movie we’re getting, that’s the brilliant plan – shut down the ‘effing Internet. Any hints of scientific merit and creative establishment are immediately sucked into a fun-hating black hole, and we can simply do nothing but laugh.
Johnny Depp gives a fine performance as Will Caster, playing a computer presence needing no emotional investment, but it’s computerized Will Caster who absolutely ruins Transcendence. Any other story would address Will’s superior thinking through the aggressive engaging of dissidents, but non-living Will exhibits no consequences. There’s no danger in his actions, just a bored looking Johnny Depp imploring people to reconsider their aversion to his tactics. A true all-knowing computer would analytically establish 100% certainty that water purification and natural rebuilding would lead to a healthier Earth, ignoring opposition, but writer Jack Paglen decides that audiences need an atrocious love story clawing away for attention, and thus a boring, perplexing, and sadly pointless Will Caster is reborn.
Transcendence shoots itself in the foot by advancing a love story with no real depth, as Rebecca Hall clings to an animated re-imaging of her once genius lover, but all this sad footage only lends itself to a finale more “weekday soap opera” than poignant technological thriller. Trust me, if said romanticizing was completed in gut-wrenching fashion, Pfister would be heralded as a genius and Paglen would be credited with making a tragic, demonstrative version of Her, but the Caster’s chemistry appears as flat as a deflated whoopee cushion. Depp, in computer form, shows no life – but that’s not expected from his human counter part. It’s a shame to see Pfister struggle so mightily with developing relationships, drama, tension, and just about every other necessary emotion, because instead of advancing fears of robotic takeovers, Transcendence works better as a numbing anesthetic meant to lull audiences to sleep – better suited for a dentist’s office than entertainment facility.
It’s criminal to think that a film featuring Kate Mara, Paul Bettany, Morgan Freeman, Cillian Murphy, Cole Hauser, and Clifton Collins Jr. can flounder so lifelessly, but these characters are forgotten almost as quickly as they’re established. Terrorist warfare is teased from the opening moments, and weapons are shown, but pacifist mentalities take over and try to spin technology in a positive light – even when trying to conquer the world. A moment happens towards the end of the film where a character says the equivalent of, “that’s it?” – and I completely understand his dumbfounded reaction. I, too, muttered those same words as the credits rolled, after sitting helplessly through some crazed Y2K lecture by a dry, repetitive old kook.
Transcendence is the equivalent of Skynet turning out to be a giant wussy with the likeness of Johnny Depp. This would have been forgivable if Jack Paglen reinforced a worthy story for digi-Caster’s “peace not war” mentality, but the math just doesn’t add up. Is it a technological success that we created a living, breathing, caring computer? A warning against not trusting technology, bringing on an eternal blackout instead of succumbing to nanotechnology that could keep us healthy, happy, and always wired in? If I answered yes, that’d just be my Internet overlords talking, but since I haven’t been plugged in yet, I can truthfully admit that Transcendence relies entirely on Wally Pfister’s cinematic background – a shallow, surface value watch in every sense.
Sorry, I’ll correct myself, I did learn one thing, it’s that apparently it’s super easy to build lavish underground bases these days. Anyone in the “Evil Bond Villain” business could learn a thing or two from Pfister’s directorial debut!
Transcendence can only muster a sloppy, dull, inept watch that refuses to present a single exciting idea about man's inevitable technological self-destruction - despite Wally Pfister's eye for visual beauty.