Directed by: Wally Pfister.
Written by: Jack Paglen.
Starring: Johnny Depp (Will Caster), Rebecca Hall (Evelyn Caster), Paul Bettany (Max Waters), Cillian Murphy (Agent Buchanan), Kate Mara (Bree), Cole Hauser (Colonel Stevens), Morgan Freeman (Joseph Tagger), Clifton Collins Jr. (Martin).
There is a kernel of a good idea at the heart of Transcendence – maybe not a terribly original idea, but an idea that could easily work as an intelligent science fiction film. The idea of the implications artificial intelligence has been a hallmark of science fiction for decades, and has produced some of the greatest novels and films the genre has ever seen. Transcendence introduces a slightly new idea to the mix – in that the A.I. is not entirely artificial. It’s actually artificial intelligence enhanced by uploading a dying, brilliant scientist’s consciousness into the program, thus solving the problem of self-awareness. But the conflict comes because the line between what is artificial and what is the man’s own consciousness becomes blurred, and the implications become incredibly scary. The film also has a good visual look. This is the directorial debut of Wally Pfister, the Oscar winning cinematographer who has worked with Christopher Nolan often – which is obvious in this film. Pfister gives the film the same basic look of Nolan’s Inception – and it is a look that works for this film. Unfortunately, the screenplay for Transcendence is poorly written – with characters, almost all of whom are geniuses and yet whose motivations make little to no sense at times, and who cannot see the obvious questions that every audience member will have staring them in the face. Couple this with an ending that tries to be profoundly ambiguous, and is really just confusing, and you end up with a film that had potential that ultimately goes unfulfilled.
The film stars Johnny Depp as Dr. Will Caster – a genius who along with his wife/partner Evelyn (Rebecca Hall) has created something called PINN – which is essentially a series of processors taking up a large room that is the first, real functioning A.I. program that they say has self-awareness. When asked if it can prove it has self-awareness, PINN turns it around on its questioner “Can you prove you have self-awareness?” Will doesn’t seem to care too much about what PINN can do – he just wants to see if he can build it. Evelyn has grander dreams of changing the world. A constantly evolving system like PINN will be more intelligent than the collective intelligence of human kind almost instantaneously – and think of what that could mean. Obviously not everyone likes what the Casters are doing – and a terrorist group known as RIFT plans coordinated attacks on A.I. labs across America – including shooting Will himself. He survives the attack – but only temporarily. The bullet was laced with radioactivity that will kill him inside a month. Evelyn refuses to let go, and with the help of Max Waters (Paul Bettany) – a scientist more interested in using technology to cure the sick than anything else – and building off the work of another one of RIFT’s victims, they discover a way to download Will’s brain into PINN. When Will dies, he is reborn in computer form – and evolves at a scary speed. Max immediately sees the error of his ways – Evelyn doesn’t. As Will becomes more powerful, he needs to set up shop somewhere else – so using the money he’s made on the stock market, he and Evelyn head out to the desert and rebuild a town to Will’s specifications.
There are many ways that Transcendence could work as a movie – but all of them involve making its characters more complex than the movie allows them to be. Depp’s performance as Will Caster is his dullest in years – but may in fact be the best one in the movie. For most the film, he is little more than a disembodied head floating on a bank of computer screens. It’s clear (to everyone in the audience anyway) that Will isn’t himself anymore once he has merged with PINN – he is basically a computer program driven mainly by logic, but also on Will’s memories (the program knows it is supposed to love Evelyn, so it does). Depp’s monotone delivery once inside the computer isn’t riveting to watch, but it’s probably the performance the movie needs (and also rather refreshing since Depp isn’t overdosing on weirdness as he’s done for far too long now). He is basically an unfeeling machine, so his lack of emotion works.
It’s the rest of the characters that don’t work. Evelyn is a Dr. Frankenstein type character who takes far too long to realize that her “husband” has become a monster. She is deluding herself from the beginning, and isolates herself (and allows computer Will to isolate her further) so she cannot see the truth – but this is a movie that supposedly takes place over the span of years, so I could never buy that she doesn’t see anything wrong with Will for that long – especially when he begins to cross all sorts of lines – in particular turning people into a network of computers he controls. Paul Bettany’s Max is another potentially interesting character the movie doesn’t know what to do with. Based on what we learn in the movie, he would have been against something like computer Will from the beginning – yet he goes along with its creation anyway. Then, once Evelyn casts him out for wanting to unplug Will, he’s kidnapped by RIFT, and held in a cage for a long period of time as they try to convince him to join them – which he eventually does. Strangely, the movie never really shows us when Max changes his mind and decides to join RIFT – and he doesn’t seem to be too angry at the fact he was treated like a prisoner either. The leader of RIFT is Bree (Kate Mara), who is another talented actor squandered by the movie. There is an irony to the fact that in RIFT’s attempt to stop A.I.’s progression, they actually give birth to the very thing they wanted to prevent – but it’s an irony that the movie doesn’t address. RIFT is a terrorist group when it suits the demands of the plot – but by the end this group, who has murdered dozens of people, is working with the government – and no one seems to bring up their terrorist roots. They simply accept them, and dive headlong into the ridiculous climax of the film. I could go on – Cillian Murphy and Morgan Freeman are given nothing to do in the film, as is Cole Hauser, who simply shows up one scene and seemingly takes over the counter-attack to Will.
The final shot in Transcendence tries for the same sort of ambiguity that the final shot in Inception achieves. The difference is the question of whether or not the top wobbles in Inception had been clearly established in the movie before – making the shot work – whereas what is implied in the final shot of Transcendence has not been. What does that final shot mean? How did it happen? The movie never explains, and as a result, it’s just as confused as the rest of the movie.
Pfister may well have a second career as a director. Cinema history has some notable examples of cinematographers turned great directors – Haskell Wexler and Nicolas Roeg – and some who made a decent career after (Ernest R. Dickeron, Barry Sonnefeld). Here Pfister shows a certain degree of promise behind the camera – at least visually speaking, which isn’t surprising. But in terms of plotting and character development, Transcendence fails pretty much completely. Whether that’s his fault or the screenplays, I don’t know – but the resulting film is a confused mess.