Marking the directorial debut of premier cinematographer Wally Pfister, Transcendence is so desperate to capture the ineffable mojo that exec producer Christopher Nolan brings to his films (and for whom Pfister has been a go-to collaborator for several projects now) that it might as well have been titled "Transception." Unfortunately, while armed with a tremendous cast and an intriguing premise that carries within it thematic echoes of Jean Baudrillard, Philip K. Dick and more, Pfister seems unsure of how to put either of them to use, leaving us with a confused jumble of big ideas tripped up by meandering execution.
The film stars Johnny Depp (about as "non-quirky" as we've seen in awhile) as famed scientist Will Caster, whose memory and consciousness are uploaded into a computer by his wife Evelyn (Rebecca Hall) and friend Max Waters (Paul Bettany) following his being stricken by a debilitating, fatal illness. As Will reaches actualization ("Transcendence") in his new computerized iteration, Evelyn aids him in tapping into the worldwide web for even greater reach and access, while a group of anti-technology cultists operating under the name RIFT (Revolutionary Independence From Technology, led by Kate Mara) learn of his existence and try to stop him from (potentially) taking over the world.
That's a very, very boiled down version, but at its core this is essentially yet another take on the tried-and-true sci-fi trope of man vs. machine, asking the question of whether our essential humanity can have a role in an increasingly mechanized modernity. That's not a bad jump-off point, and from 2001 to The Terminator to The Matrix, we've certainly gotten plenty of great cinema that was planted in very similar soil. No, the problem with Transcendence (script by Jack Paglen) is in its pronounced, protracted inability to follow through on the intriguing set of questions it lays out at the outset.
For a story that you'd think would have pretty broad, global implications (a disembodied intelligence that's answerable to no one, with the power to access all information at will and, more importantly, control financial markets), the whole thing feels curiously isolated, with no real sense of portent or immediacy. After using some financial trickery online, the digital Will sets up Evelyn with enough financial security to buy up an entire desert town, creating a field of solar panels and an underground bunker that serve as foundation for Will's growing resources and abilities (including using nanite technology to create an army of human drones).
But instead of taking us through that process, showing us how the rest of the world is responding to this major status quo shift, we cut to an indeterminate number of months later, and that's about it. The whole thing is beset by this disjointedness. Things just happen, and we're meant to accept them, logic be damned. It's as if entire swaths of story and character development were chopped out (if they were ever shot at all). By the time of the big showdown between Will and RIFT (who've now teamed up with the feds, even though they were considered a terrorist group a few reels ago), the film has made such a muddle of its own sympathies that we're not sure which side we're supposed to be on.*
It tells you something that Nolan regulars Morgan Freeman and Cillian Murphy are also in the cast, but they're rendered so unessential by the various machinations of the plot that I didn't even feel the need to weave them into the above synopsis. Now, make no mistake, there's absolutely a place for stories that reside in the moral gray areas of the man/machine dichotomy (heck, that's one of the things I love about the Matrix sequels -- and yes, I realize that makes me part of a very small fraternity), but the filmmakers desperately needed to clarify our focus to make the climactic payoff effective.
An inherently unbelievable conceit doesn't necessarily have to be a barrier to audience investment. After all, Inception asks us to accept a doohickey that inserts you into people's dreams, but the stakes feel real, and that's what we're on the ride for. As to be expected from a DP of Pfister's caliber, this is a gorgeous movie with a top-notch production design, but the all-important character beats never coalesces into anything meaningful, making the conceptual stuff that much easier to dismiss altogether. In an ironic reflection of its own themes. Transcendence looks snazzy, but upon closer examination you realize it's nothing more than a polished simulacrum of other, more accomplished films. C-
* I did find an amusing bit of meta-textual irony in the fact that it's Bettany, best known as the disembodied voice of Tony Stark's computer JARVIS in Iron Man and The Avengers, who ends up making the case for humanity here.