Review: ‘Transcendence’ is transcendently frustrating

Johnny Depp, Rebecca Hall and Paul Bettany play scientists ready to ruin the world in "Transcendence." Credit: Warner Bros. Pictures
Johnny Depp, Rebecca Hall and Paul Bettany play scientists ready to ruin the world in “Transcendence.”
Credit: Warner Bros. Pictures

Director: Wally Pfister
Stars: Johnny Depp, Rebecca Hall
Rating: PG-13
2 (out of 5) Globes

Though it has plenty of moments of questionable intelligence, “Transcendence” is not stupid. If anything, it has too many good ideas. There are plenty of ways to attack the subject of singularity — of humans taking the next leap and fusing themselves with technology. “Transcendence” does about eight of them, maybe nine or ten. Three or four of them could fuel a movie of their own, but this isn’t a film that’s too much of a good thing — it’s simply overstuffed, frustrating, especially because every now and then, for brief spurts, it really cooks, becoming the mind-blower it wishes it was constantly.

The foundation is more or less secure. At the base is Johnny Depp’s Max Caster, a scientist who works in artificial intelligence. It’s the almost-future, and anxieties over technology are such that there has sprouted a wave of terrorists who preach “unplugging” — a term whose dated language would seem a joke if the film had more of a sense of humor. (Later the film actually drops “Y2K.” How many in the audience will even remember that?) Will is attacked and poisoned with radiation. He’s willing to accept his death until his Ann Druyan-esque wife Evelyn (Rebecca Hall) discovers they can scan him onto a massive computer.

Or has he actually just been copied, not actually transferred? And is all of what’s there “Will” or is it a mesh with other traces? And with unlimited intelligence, will whatever’s in there change, perhaps start becoming power-mad? To its credit, “Transcendence” takes these questions seriously. But it moves too quickly to suggest that Digital Will has gone rogue, and Evelyn along with him. Paul Bettany gets the short straw and plays Max, their skeptical friend — with an ostentatious crucifix that’s never remarked upon — who gets embroiled, though never quite brainwashed, by the terrorists. They call themselves “neo-Luddites,” another term that’s emblematic of the film’s strange mix of ambition and occasional, selective unimaginativeness.

There’s an amazing, gut-wrenching, haunting film that could be made exclusively about Evelyn, who insists that “Will” is Will, and neither a copy nor an evil bastardization of same. Like many in the throes of grief, or even just love, she becomes a victim of confirmation bias, scanning for any traces of her dead husband and ignoring that which negates it, all the while letting slide the increasing ethical questionability of many of his actions — even when he’s created an army of super-humans he can control. She will accept a duplicate of her deceased beloved, and even of their home, because she can. Much like the Internet, the technology Evelyn uses allows her to submerge herself in soul-sucking nostalgia.

The screenplay, by Jack Paglen, does a theoretically good job of cramming this into the other, many plot threads, including the neo-Luddites’ attempts (with an assist from Will’s pal Morgan Freeman) to destroy Will’s scarily expanding empire. But it’s still engaging in cramming, and too often “Transcendence” feels like it’s racing through what should be a vaster storyline. It even botches a bit where Will, using nanotechnology, gives sight to a man who’s been blind since birth, jumping right to the next part before we’ve had a chance to ponder what vision must look like at first to someone who’s never had it. Brainy thoughts sit with lazy screenwriting, as witness Evelyn’s murkily staged/plotted escape from a terrorist visit. The ending asks us to accept silly screenwriterly cheats, including a cheap ending, as mysterious.

Such a subject is more the forte of Christopher Nolan. It’s no surprise that Nolan’s name is in the credits, though the director is Wally Pfister, his longtime cinematographer. But Pfister is not Nolan, and on top of that, this is probably the least visually distinctive film ever directed by a man whose daytime job is to make visuals. Pfister’s own images, in the Nolan films, are rough and dim. Some of “Transcendence,” shot by Jess Hall but very much informed by Pfister’s CV, is downright Gordon Willis-y, whose images — especially in “The Godfather Part II” — can arguably experiment too far with going dark. “Transcendence” is lacking in eye-popping images, especially when projected on an all-encompassing IMAX screen. There are a lot of long hallways that descend into apparent infinity, but Pfister is not one to do sleek, and the screenplay gives him few chances to depict events in images.

“Transcendence” is a curious failure, then — one too intelligent to write off, but too much of a mess to defend past a certain, modest point. The movie gets away from both Pfister and Paglen, and in some ways, Spike Jonze’s “Her” — with which it shares more than a few accidental similarities (beyond having the same studio, Warner Bros.) — was more adventurous, more successful at exploring its ideas and its world. Bits of it could be broken off and remade by people more up to the task, and better at whittling their work down to its purest essence. Perhaps all of these could feature Rebecca Hall, as her impersonation of grief and a crumbling psyche is by far the most film’s most human aspect.

Follow Matt Prigge on Twitter @mattprigge


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