They really shouldn’t call a film Transcendence. The temptation to reply with a one-word review (“No”) is irresistible – but a few more words are needed for this well-meant but muddled sci-fi drama, the directorial debut of Oscar-winning cinematographer Wally Pfister who’s worked extensively with Christopher Nolan of Inception fame.
Two points to note, vis-a-vis Pfister’s previous employment. First, the film looks surprisingly un-pretty for a film by a notable cinematographer. I presume it’s intentional, but the visuals are blotchy verging on muddy and skin tones seem several degrees too hot (then again we also get the play of raindrops on glass, and dew falling from a flower in extreme slow-motion). Second, very few great cinematographers have become great directors, and it may be telling that the best example (Nicolas Roeg, who made Don’t Look Now and The Man Who Fell to Earth back in the 70s) didn’t really go in for linear storytelling. Simply put, manipulating narrative and manipulating light through a camera may be two completely different talents.
The narrative is weak in Transcendence. Not the premise per se, which updates the mad-scientist genre to the digital age. Not the ideas, which are fascinating. But the actual nuts and bolts, which don’t click together as tightly as they should. Our protagonist isn’t top-billed Johnny Depp – as the world’s finest scientist in the field of Artificial Intelligence – but Rebecca Hall as his wife, who’s also a scientist and decides to “upload” his consciousness to a computer after his demise. The experiment works; Johnny (or a “digital approximation”) now lives inside the machine – and becomes increasingly powerful, copying himself initially to all the world’s computers via the internet, then to human beings (replacing their cells with his own binary code) and even the land, air and water.
Rebecca is initially thrilled to have her man back – but inevitably has a change of heart in the final act, which is where the narrative weakness becomes apparent. That kind of turning point is a film’s emotional core, but Transcendence doesn’t do enough with it. One minute, Hall is happily roaming the field of solar panels where her digi-husband has his headquarters, the next she’s looking antsy and deciding that he must be stopped (her only motivation seems to be a handwritten note from Morgan Freeman, which admittedly is quite a strong impetus). The climax is even shakier, building to a crucial decision – the most important decision in the whole film – then fluffing it in a brief, blink-and-you’ll-miss-it shot. I actually did miss it, and later had to go on the internet to find out how the [spoiler] had suddenly been [spoiler]ed.
The internet is something of a villain in Transcendence. It “was meant to make the world a smaller place, yet the world seems smaller without it,” muses Paul Bettany (as Depp’s best friend) in the opening scene, a flash-forward to a non-wired world. The film’s overall thrust is surprisingly technophobic (or not so surprisingly, given that Pfister is a vocal champion of old-fashioned celluloid over digital filmmaking). The “neo-Luddite” group who kick-start the plot by trying to assassinate our hero aren’t exactly evil (they even have a teenage kid in their ranks), while the global reach of the internet has a sinister aspect. “I’m fine. I’m online,” says the machine pretending to be Johnny. “Where are you going?” “Everywhere!”
‘How can we stop this?’ Bettany is asked by the neo-Luddites. You can’t, he replies; all you can do is “wait for it to go too far. Wait for people to wake up”. The implication is that we the people, Western society, are shutting our eyes to the dangers in our midst. They’ll be scared at first, says the machine, but they’ll embrace the technology when they see what it does. The technology can do wondrous things: it can regenerate cells, cure the blind and heal the environment. Yes; but it also controls everyone and everything. Johnny (or ‘Johnny’) doesn’t just love Rebecca, he measures her hormones and keeps tabs on her every thought and feeling (“I’m trying to empathise,” he explains). Is this a price we’re willing to pay, for a long healthy life in a clean, thriving planet?
The dilemma is familiar, but it’s seldom been expressed so clearly in movies. As a film of ideas, Transcendence is powerful; as a film per se, it’s not so successful. It wants to be a love story inside a sci-fi drama, like Inception, but in fact the emotion is a non-starter. The couple’s love is meant to be a deep, all-encompassing thing (“Take care of her,” pleads Depp with almost his final words as ‘himself’), but we barely get to know them. Looking back, it’s hard to think of a single character with a clear, satisfying arc, or a single actor who’s not underused. Transcendence isn’t mindless or cynical, but it gets bogged down and never takes flight. Is it interesting? Yes. Big-budget? Sure. Transcendent? No.
DIRECTED BY Wally Pfister
STARRING Rebecca Hall, Johnny Depp, Paul Bettany
US 2014 119 mins