REVIEW SUMMARY: Director Wally Pfister’s first feature film tries to tackle themes of transhumanism and the singularity, but gets knocked aside by the inelegant thriller plot tacked onto them.
SYNOPSIS: When artificial intelligence research Will Caster faces death at the hands of anti-technology extremists, his wife attempts to save his life by scanning his brain into a computer, which sends him on a journey to transcend to a new state of being.
PROS: A breathtaking vision of an uploaded mind entering cyberspace; intriguing moral questions raised by the actions of a hive mind.
CONS: Mediocre thriller plot that drowns ideas; sluggish pace; clichéd plot and characters; uninspired direction.
It was only a matter of time. It only took 20 years for Hollywood to read Vernor Vinge’s essay “The Coming Technological Singularity,” and now, with Wally Pfister’s Transcendence, it seems to have…well, “getting its head around it” might imply that the great studio machine actually possesses something resembling consciousness or thought. Perhaps Hollywood realizes it can now read these daring if daft speculations as source code for contemporary blockbusters, allowing the estate of Philip K. Dick a reprieve from handwringing over the next ill-fated adaptation of his work. After all, how many times can you twist reality until you begin popping off the heads of audiences like a toddler with a grudge decapitating her older sister’s Ken doll?
Unfortunately, now that it has the source code, it may take years, and many more movies, to program it into something that doesn’t play like a slapdash melding of Michael Crichton, William Gibson, and Mary Shelley. Such an approach could conceivably work — the concept of beings climbing higher on the evolutionary ladder, thus leaving humans behind, of course offers the potential for drama on a global, even cosmic, scale — and made for a diverting, timely, and ultimately disposable 90-minute thriller had Jack Paglen not stuffed Transcendence’s screenplay with clichés to the point of bloating to more than two hours. His love of the ideas, the terminology, and the iconography reveals itself from the moment a diehard fan asks researcher Dr. Will Caster (Johnny Depp) to sign her copy of Wired just before he and his wife Evelyn (Rebecca Hall) deliver a TED-like speech to a fascinated audience. Fandom accretes around scientists, just as it does around rock stars, but neither the fan nor Caster’s speech ring true. His ideas about artificial intelligence and networked, collective sentience might excite those who passed an afternoon watching The Matrix, but to one that has read Ray Kurzweil’s The Age of Spiritual Machines and The Singularity Is Near — one assumes that the TED audience at least has a working familiarity with these two bestsellers — they must sound not only derivative but overly simplistic.
Given the lack of real balance and the ominous omnipotence in Depp’s tone (as well as the necessity of following thriller rules), it’s no wonder a neo-Luddite organization attempts to kill him after he delivers his speech. And (not a spoiler but the bones of Transcendence’s rickety story skeleton) ultimately succeeds; the bullets fired in his direction only graze him, but the radiation coating their tips begins to shut down his organs. Before he dies, Evelyn digitally scans the contents of his brain, which she uploads into a computer matrix stolen from his laboratory (also the target of the anti-technology extremists) and then, ultimately, on to the Internet itself. Evelyn views this action as a salvation, but Caster’s best friend Max Walters (Paul Bettany) questions whether or not what is downloaded is actually Will, or something…other. Did Caster inadvertently merge with the previous matrix, creating a hybrid?
As with most technothrillers, Transcendence dares to ask Important Questions — What is the nature of the human? What happens when the quest for knowledge becomes a quest for power? — but, as with most technothrillers, very quickly devolves into a series of chases, forgetting its loftier aims. A scant few moments fill the viewer with a bit of awe and no small wonder. When Caster finally uploads himself into cyberspace, it reminds one of the first time Case jacks in to the matrix in Gibson’s Neuromancer, as if director Pfister lifted the horizon of lights on a sea of black space straight from the classic cyberpunk tome’s pages. But they occur too infrequently, and veer into terrain well-traversed by other tales. After Evelyn escapes from a group of extremists, Caster directs her to build a corporation to…well, do something. Although Caster’s motives are clear to Caster, they elude Paglen’s screenplay, and remain obscure to the audience. Why create a facility in the middle of the desert, thus guaranteeing the neo-Luddites who want to kill him will use it as a target, when he can explore the depths and heights of the Internet as he sees fit?
It also never raises obvious questions; though the screenplay focuses on the wild-eyed technophobe Bree (Kate Mara, following the Kristen Stewart school of acting in finding one expression and wearing it throughout) as Caster’s primary antagonist (she becomes something of Caster’s mortal enemy after he downloaded the brain of an ape into a matrix, and heard it scream), it never stops to wonder if somebody else might not be able to replicate Caster’s research. Granted, as the movie opens the neo-Luddites attempt to kill almost everybody associated with Caster’s research, but wouldn’t another up-and-coming scientist, or even a corporation, attempt to put his research into practice for their own ends? The screenplay’s own myopia never provides it the opportunity to set its sights higher than its second-rate Crichtonesque vision.
Pfister, who served as Christopher Nolan’s cinematographer on The Prestige and Inception (among others), directs his first feature with Transcendence, but never engages with his material, and displays no real gift for pacing, often making the thriller elements trudge through the movie as if with feet stuck in clay. Worse, most of his scenes lack any visual interest; though Depp’s and Bettany’s designer clothes photograph well, though Pfister obviously loves filming a natural world, his palate seems as flat as a canvas. Flat, too, are his actors. Depp’s Caster wanders through cyberspace as if through a stoned haze, while Hall’s Evelyn jumps from distraught wife to terrified Frankenbride without much real logic, and Bettany changes alliances too quickly and with little nuance. Even Morgan Freeman as Caster’s fellow programmer Taggart and Cilian Murphy as FBI agent Buchanan serve little purpose than to look gravely on what man hath wrought.
The climax comes, of course, when those who ultimately want to stop Caster must do so in a way that focuses more on romanticism than pragmatism, thus exposing its own trite, reactionary core. One of those who confront the hive-mind army Caster creates points out an intriguing action that, like the rest of the movie, is never fully explored, largely because it’s too busy trying in vain to excite. Transcendence wants to be a digital 2001: A Space Odyssey, but plays like a muddled adaptation of Westworld. It aspires to a sense of awe, but sinks into genre’s primordial ooze.