Imagine you’re driving a Lamborghini up a steep mountain on your way to a gorgeous ski resort. The higher you go, the steeper it gets. Nevertheless, the vistas are stunning, you’re excited, and already imagining yourself putting on your fancy ski gear. Suddenly for no explicable reason, the Lamborghini abruptly stops, switches to neutral and turns off! Uh oh!
Watching Transcendence is a lot like this scenario—except everything is in slow-motion. It begins with a promise of something intriguing. It teases us with intelligent ideas. It even made me say, “Hey, Johnny Depp might be in a decent movie for once!” Maybe that was too much to ask because just as we’re about to invest in its plot and characters, the film stops dead, takes an about turn for the absurd before face planting into an ocean of nonsense.
The directorial debut of Christopher Nolan’s longtime Oscar-winning cinematographer Wally Pfister, Transcendence is a techno-phobic science fiction thriller minus the thrills or the science. It presents itself as a cautionary tale warning against the dangers of artificial intelligence but instead ends up becoming a cautionary tale against handing big-budget projects to first-time filmmakers. Written by debutant screenwriter Jack Paglen, the film stars Johnny “paycheck” Depp as Will Caster, a shaggy-haired, bespectacled superstar scientist hip enough to appear on the cover of Wired and have his own army of groupies. In other words, he’s a typical movie scientist.
Will and his equally attractive scientist wife Evelyn (Rebecca Hall) are on the cusp of creating a self-aware artificial intelligence. Their latest invention, PIMM (Physically Integrated Neutral Network) is like HAL 9000, minus the nefarious intentions and the self-awareness. Although friend and fellow scientist Max (Paul Bettany) is concerned about the pratfalls of chasing this dream, the Castors are unfazed. And why would they? Nothing could possibly go wrong!
But then it does. Will’s research and fame gains the attention of a Luddite terrorist group called Unplug. Led by a suitably creepy Kate Mara, Unplug launches a series of simultaneous attacks on scientists and AI labs all across the country, culminating in an assassination attempt on Will. He survives but the bullet, laced with radioactive material, leaves him with only a couple of weeks to live.
Learning that an assassinated scientist was able to transfer the consciousness of a chimpanzee into an artificial intelligence program, Evelyn, along with a reluctant Max, decide to do the same to Will, connecting him with PIMM. When Will resurrects on Evelyn’s computer screen with a new haircut, he politely demands to be connected to the web and to a larger server. Oblivious to the insanity of giving a sentient machine unlimited power, she blindly obliges because… well, she’s in love. As the sole smart person in the movie, Max implores Evelyn to shut down the machine but is swiftly shooed off.
As Will/PIMM/Pim—it’s never clear who’s behind Depp’s polite visage—gradually becomes more powerful, Transcendence simultaneously retrogresses from asking questions about man’s God-complex, his relationship, dependence and fear of technology to a preposterous “Man versus machine” Frankenstein thriller with evil cyborgs and CGI super-plants. It’s silly, stupid, and frankly, just boring.
Pfister, whose artful framing and unique visual style have been essential to the iconography of Christopher Nolan’s films, carries forward that look in his directorial debut. Transcendence may have been shot by cinematographer Jess Hall but with the abundance of soft lighting, central framing and a color palette populated with grays, navy blues, and whites, it bears all the trademarks of Pfister. He’s less successful at giving the film a narrative pulse though. For a story about scientists who create a self-aware artificial intelligence and then watch in horror as it takes over the world, Transcendence is shockingly devoid of drama. No one’s asking for an exuberant “It’s Alive, it’s Alive!” speech but Paglen’s limp script could have been tightened by adding some urgency, character and even humor to the proceedings.
Just about the only person who comes out clean from this prosaic experience is Rebecca Hall. She brings empathy to the tragically confused and mentally unstable Evelyn. And she succeeds at this in spite of her co-star doing zilch to help her. While the credits may list Morgan Freeman, Cillian Murphy and Clifton Collins Jr. in supporting roles, I couldn’t tell you why they appear or what purpose they serve other than to fill out thankless roles.
As for Depp… this is yet another listless performance. To say he’s on auto-pilot would be a colossal insult to the inventors of the auto-pilot. Transcendence is his sixth straight live-action dog after Alice in Wonderland, The Tourist, Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides, The Rum Diary, Dark Shadows and The Lone Ranger. If the only movies audiences have to look forward to are worthless Pirates of the Caribbean and Alice in Wonderland sequels, he might as well transfer his consciousness into a computer and be done with it; because from the looks of it, it sure as hell doesn’t look like his heart’s in it.
Running time: 119 minutes
Distributor: Warner Brothers
Rating: PG-13 for sci-fi action and violence, some bloody images, brief strong language and sensuality