Transcendence: Film Review

Big ideas and a big budget work at cross-purposes sometimes.

Johnny Depp stars in Wally Pfister's directorial debut.

Nurturing an admirably vaulting ambition that doesn't always fit neatly within the format of a conventional, mass audience-aimed Hollywood production, Transcendence joins a growing group of films that intriguingly speculates about the implications of imminent technological breakthroughs on life in the very, very near future. Christopher Nolan's regular cinematographer Wally Pfister certainly didn't choose to cautiously test the waters when it came to making his directorial debut, having instead chosen to dive in deep with a story so ripe with dramatic, thematic, ethical, scientific, political and romantic angles that the feeling of possibilities missed inevitably seems greater than the sense of potential achieved. Johnny Depp's name will have to be counted upon to lure mainstream crowds on opening weekend, but this big Warner Bros. release will prove too demanding, perplexing and egg-headed for widespread popularity.

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Films touching upon robots, mind control, smart computers and artificial intelligence of all kinds are nothing new, going all the way back to the silent era. The ambiguous merging of humans and machines, of the latter acquiring not only vast knowledge but also the emotion and the responsiveness of homo sapiens, occupies a niche artistic realm most recently distinguished by Spike Jonze's supremely poignant Her. Above all, Transcendence explores the frontiers of human evolution, with anthropoids making the crucial leap from physical vulnerability and mortality to a different form offering potentially unlimited durability and knowledge. If progress is significantly a matter of making periodic heroic leaps, this certainly counts as one of the big ones.

First-time screenwriter Jack Paglen's far-reaching yarn is framed by a peek into a squalid near-future stripped of technology, one that the narrator, neurobiologist Max Waters (Paul Bettany), ruefully says “feels smaller” without the Internet; it's a point well taken. Five years earlier, Max, tech genius Dr. Will Caster (Depp) and the latter's researcher wife, Evelyn (Rebecca Hall), are the rock stars of the Northern California experimental technology community, with Will's breakthroughs having led to the very doorstep of the creation of a sentient computer, one that he announces also will possess the combined intelligence of all the people who have ever lived on Earth.

It is the trio's stated position that their efforts are intended only with the good of the world in mind, but there are those who beg to differ. Challenged at a public presentation by a hostile audience member who asks if Will doesn't want to create “your own god,” the brainiac digs himself a hole by responding, “Isn't that what man has always done?” Moments later, Will is shot by a protestor, although seemingly not seriously, just as several research labs are simultaneously blown up by a fringy back-to-the-Earth-type group called RIFT that sports slogans like “Unplug” and “Evolution Without Technology.” The violent neo-Luddites are led by the smart and remorseless Bree, whom Kate Mara makes even creepier and more to-be-avoided than her reporter character in House of Cards.

Transcendence is a film that, to discuss in all its aspects, would require dropping an unconscionable number of spoilers. But the title transparently refers to the morphing of Will from a being limited to his mortal coil to one who inhabits an online realm with his human feelings and personality intact. Overcome by grief at her husband's shooting, Evelyn soon becomes his enabler, following his instructions about how to forge a new technological path for humanity -- a process that inevitably crosses some troublesome moral and ethical lines just as it promises a new synthesis between mind and matter.

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So with all these heady preoccupations offering far more food for thought than ever pop up in most mainstream films, what do we actually see happening onscreen in this high-minded affair? Although more dramatically subdued and less sensation-oriented than most big-budget studio productions (there are certainly fewer Imax-worthy moments here than normal for films outfitted for the format), the drama becomes increasingly larded with violence, action and special effects.

Max is kidnapped by RIFT and squirreled away while the extremists try to convince him that his friend's work needs to be thwarted. The scientist's old mentor, Professor Tagger (Morgan Freeman), who sagely sees both sides of the argument, helps FBI agent Buchanan (Cillian Murphy) pursue the terrorists before focusing upon Will's new activities. The latter begin with Evelyn constructing a dazzling high-tech bunker under a desert festooned with solar panels arrayed as far as the eye can see (the film was largely shot in New Mexico). How this is financed is one question that's dispatched in a throwaway, but more puzzling is the question of what experts built it and staff it and how it continues to go virtually unnoticed or remarked upon by the government or anyone else.

In his reincarnated form, Will exists solely as a digital computer image on a screen. Convinced it's really him and not some hacked-in imposter due to his emotional responsiveness, specific memories and personal associations, Evelyn proceeds to do his bidding in order to fully realize the scientific breakthrough he was so close to achieving. Dedicating herself solely to his cause, she becomes the film's linchpin -- Will is seen virtually only in computerized form after about the half-hour point -- as well as the conduit for the ethical/intellectual debate at the center of everything here. Is she blinded by her love for and commitment to her genius mate to carry out his instructions no matter what? Does she have a moral compass or has she gone down the rabbit hole of obsession? 

The obligatory “action,” some of it involving desert scum occupying the spittoon of a town called Brightwood, feels oddly jarring in this context, just as the special effects involving massive explosions and vaporous particles arising from the ground to the clouds seem like crumbs thrown to sensation-hungry viewers. What the drama innately seems to be leading toward is a Liebestod-type ecstatic reunion between the two lovers who presently occupy different realms but, because of technology, can now be united.

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Alas, amidst the struggle between the script's compelling high-mindedness and the package's conventional commercial requirements, there is a blurring of intent and, with that, a loss of a vital emotional connection to any of the three characters, as Will morphs into a digital phantom, Evelyn becomes unhinged and Max is long sidelined by his captors. The residual poignance of momentous opportunities achieved and lost is minimized to such an extent that one is forced to conclude that, to make a film as intellectually adventurous as Transcendence wants to be, a filmmaker is almost obliged to work as independently -- and cheaply -- as, say, Shane Carruth did on Upstream Color.

Hall is the one actor here who's challenged and pushed to any emotional extremes, and her intelligent, alert and unpredictable bearing is very welcome. Wearing tortoiseshell horn-rims and speaking softly in his corporal moments, Depp has the right studious, distracted air as the smartest man in the world, and it's good to see Bettany, for once, as a real guy instead of the generic baddie he's mostly played of late.
Befitting a production executive produced by Nolan and Emma Thomas, Transcendence is immaculately outfitted in every respect. Pfister, who, like his mentor Nolan, adamantly continues to shoot on film (not digital), shows a sure hand at staging scenes, creating visuals and setting a tone -- if only all the diverse elements here fit comfortably under the same tent.

Opens: April 17 (Warner Bros.)

Production: Alcon Entertainment, Straight Up Films

Cast: Johnny Depp, Rebecca Hall, Paul Bettany, Cillian Murphy, Kate Mara, Cole Hauser, Morgan Freeman, Clifton Collins Jr., Cory Hardrict, Falk Hentschel, Josh Stewart, Luce Rains, Fernando Chien, Steven Liu, Xander Berkeley, Lukas Haas

Director: Wally Pfister

Screenwriter: Jack Paglen

Producers: Andrew A. Kosove, Broderick Johnson, Kate Cohen, Marisa Polvino, Annie Marter, David Valdes, Aaron Ryder

Executive producers: Christopher Nolan, Emma Thomas, Dan Mintz

Director of photography: Jess Hall

Production designer: Chris Seagers

Costume designer: George L. Little

Editor: David Rosenbloom

Music: Mychael Danna

PG-13 rating, 119 minutes