Cerebral science fiction is all the rage these days. Movies like Her and Under the Skin have proven that sci-fi films don’t need huge budgets and set-pieces to be good (apparently having Scarlett Johannson on board doesn’t hurt either). Making a traditionally successful science fiction movie is another matter, however. Transcendence, the first directorial effort from frequent Christopher Nolan cinematographer Wally Pfister, tries to shoot the gap between these two mindsets, and ultimately disappoints on both fronts.
This is technically a spoiler, but the movie opens with Paul Bettany narration over serene views of a world completely devoid of technology, before flashing back five years for the actual story. So I guess we know how this all shakes out. The journey better be great then, guys (it’s not). The whole “blank hours/weeks/days earlier” trope is one of my least favorite cinematic devices. It is extremely lazy, and often feels like cheating – as if the filmmaker doesn’t trust the material to grab the viewers attention. But at least most movies and TV shows these days have the decency to start in the middle of the story, instead of at the freakin’ end. Not Transcendence. Transcendence breaks all the rules, man.
I guess I’m fixating. If you don’t already feel sated by the pudding at the beginning of your Transcendence meal, you will find a tough entree in the form of the movie’s plot. Johnny Depp technically stars as Dr. Will Caster, an artificial intelligence researcher whose main focus seems to be speaking vaguely about the future without actually saying anything. That is an interest he shares with his wife, Evelyn (Rebecca Hall), and with their friend Max Waters (Bettany). The three talk obtusely about changing the world, before something happens that necessitates the uploading of Will’s consciousness to the digital world (not The Digital World from Digimon – that would have been a much more interesting movie). The movie asks a bunch of questions: Does absolute knowledge corrupt absolutely? What steps are acceptable for a greater good? What is the definition of “consciousness?” Of “life?” Of “humanity?” In the end, Pfister and screenwriter Jack Paglen are incapable of answering any of those questions satisfactorily. Perhaps they should have limited themselves to one Big Question, rather than trying to take on all of them.
This is Paglen’s first produced script, and it is pretty slow. It is also boring, but lack of action is not an indictment in and of itself. The problem here is a lack of interest. The characters don’t even care about what they are doing most of the time. There is a sense of urgency (often developed through frenetic editing), but nothing is ever really happening until the final twenty minutes (of a two hour movie). Some of the actors – including Bettany and Kate Mara as a techno-terrorist – do their best to make something out of what they are given, but for the most part there is a general sense of malaise among the cast, especially from Depp. You can call his disaffectedness a character choice, but it comes across to me as a guy who signed on for a project that probably required a week of work and earned him a giant paycheck.
This is a big studio picture, though, so it has to get its big action scenes in near the end, and amid the explosions, the movie finally makes one interesting argument about why ComputerWill has done the things it has done. Mind you, there are about five minutes left in the movie, a majority of which we already saw in the opening moments, so it is crazy that the film waited this long to get intriguing. We can lay this at Paglen’s feet, but his equally wet-behind-the-ears partner in crime, Pfister, doesn’t do the script any favors. Pfister brings nothing fresh to the table; the film looks good from a lighting and composition standpoint, which you would expect from a cinematographer, but Pfister does nothing innovative at all with the camera or the visuals (aside from the most literal interpretation of the phrase “uploading to the cloud”).
The ideas of artificial intelligence and consciousness permanence in a post-singularity society are ripe for investigation – Her did way more with much less – but Transcendence is not where you will find it. It is nice that executive producer Chrisptopher Nolan helped his collaborator get his movie made, but Pfister is going to need to do a little more if he wants to avoid becoming just a studio gun-for-hire in the future. The uncertain, techno-terrorist-filled future.