Wally Pfister might be a Luddite. For his directorial debut, Christopher Nolan’s longtime director of photography programs a prophetic parable of technophobia, small-scale, star-studded, and captured on pristine 35mm film — like the good ol’ days. Like a slick combination of both Lawnmower Man and Lawnmower Man 2: Jobe’s War, Transcendence “What ifs?” the melding of human consciousness and artificial intelligence with a Nolan-esque grit. While grand finale pitfalls plague the brainy thriller like a chaotic cloud of can’t-click-away pop-up ads, Pfister and writer Jack Paglen mine computer science for every intriguing visual and propelling story beat they can find. The film will either grip or bore one to tears, depending on a tolerance for speculative babble. Transcendence doesn’t make more sense than the typical Michael Bay-style, adrenaline-infused sci-fi, but it posits with eloquence and an admiration for reality.
Johnny Depp plays Dr. Will Caster, a leading researcher in the field of A.I. (to the point where he has co-ed groupies — clearly we’re all in the wrong field). In front of audiences, he’s an advocate for the advancement of technology. Behind close doors, he’s the father of PINN, a nearly self-aware processing unit capable of “seeing” with a camera, answering questions with the Internet’s vast knowledge, and processing new queries that could lead to individual discoveries. His wife, Evelyn (Rebecca Hall), best friend, Max (Paul Bettany), and colleague, Joseph (Morgan Freeman), are all in awe. Anti-technology extremists are less pleased. Led by Bree (Kate Mara), the terrorist group R.I.F.T. aims to cut off PINN at its knees in the quickest way possible: a bullet to Will’s head.
The plan almost works. A point blank assassination attempt blows straight through Will’s chest, but the bullet’s radiated surface stands to slow burn the scientist to death. Acting against a ticking clock, Evelyn and Max attempt the first ever “Transcendence,” the process of copy/pasting a human brain inside a computer’s hard drive. While his physical body powers down, Digi-Will reanimates with all the computing power of PINN. The breakthrough is short-lived. Digi-Will’s taste for knowledge turns him into a power hungry visionary. With promises of saving the world, he lures Evelyn to a desert town to begin construction on his version of paradise. It doesn’t take too long for R.I.F.T. to transform from villain to hero.
Chase elements give Transcendence a required boost of Hollywood thrills, but Pfister invests his steady eye in the realization of Will’s innovations. We see the mechanics behind uploading his decaying brain into the PINN system, Digi-Will passing through wires to safely conceal himself inside Evelyn’s smart phone, the ease at which the human computer can dig up insider trade secrets to earn $60 million in a few hours time, the ground-up construction of a military base where Will births and controls his own army of nanobots. Like a technology-focused Cosmos, Transcendence finds beauty (and in this case, terror too) in the way things work. Or, could. With HAL 9000-like tranquility, Depp’s Will talks through the grand design. His tone never wavers, whether he’s curing a man’s blindness or pitting humanoid drones against America’s analog weaponry.
Proving more difficult is finding the intersections between science and set pieces (a precision exercise that turned Jurassic Park into a modern classic). When it’s clear Transcendence is done examining the ramifications of rapid A.I. Evolution, it downgrades into a realist version of G.I. Joe. Rail guns replace keyboard commands, computer viruses are liquefied, and Pfister’s immaculate cinematography, shot by The Spectacular Now DP Jess Hall, is cluttered with CGI modeling. Watching solar panels explode into a million shiny shards of shrapnel is a wild effect, but a modest conclusion to the promise of Pfister and Paglen’s big ideas.
As the thematic entry points fizzle out, Pfister’s talented cast are left to chomp at air. Early on, Depp’s purposefully mesmerizing monotone is alley-ooped by Hall and Bettany, who give Transcendence‘s far out dialogue Social Network-level sincerity. It’s the big emotions, the life or death heroism, that they can’t crack. Pfister’s atmosphere doesn’t allow for it; as Will’s abilities escalate, Transcendence loses a sense of geography. Apparently a sentient computer could build an entire base without any government interference for two years? Jumps in time and lapses in logic create chaos that’s difficult to keep up with, muddling Hall and Bettany’s ferocious turns out of the gates. Mara is especially underused, with Bree beginning as a violent, wise opponent to Will’s way of life, only to dwindle into “Gal with Gun” by the time credits roll. Freeman, Cillian Murphy, and Cole Hauser all appear to stand around, mouths agape.
More movies could stand to take chances like Transcendence. In a world flooded with homogeneous digital photography, Pfister’s insistence on photochemical film is noticeable and vibrant. Its ambition to spin sci-fi scares out of scenarios are primal and exhilarating, the scenario feeling uncomfortably within reach. But while the movie gnaws on today’s looming questions, it envisions itself as a blockbuster. It can’t fill that scope. Transcendence is so concerned with the “then” and the “to be” that it forgets to concoct action that can dazzle in the “now.”
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