by Tony Dayoub
Remember that Star Trek episode where Captain Kirk has to free some aliens on a planet controlled by an all-powerful, omniscient computer? And those aliens have these tiny antenna on their necks that allow them to be networked with that computer, Vaal, essentially making them physical instruments for it to conduct whatever activities necessary for a planetary makeover suited to his specifications. That's Transcendence in a nutshell, only with even more hokey, far-fetched ideas thrown in to complicate the simplistic story a bit.
Johnny Depp plays Dr. Will Caster, a scientist on track to develop the most advanced artificial intelligence yet that, as he puts it, would eventually possess more knowledge than the sum of all the people who have EVER populated the earth. This doesn't bode well for a group of technophobe terrorists led by Bree (Kate Mara). They try to assassinate Caster, who survives, only to find that the bullet was laced with a radioactive isotope and he's going to die in 5 weeks anyway. That's just enough time for him to find a way to upload his consciousness into the still in progress AI with the help of his wife Evelyn (Rebecca Hall) and their more ethical pal Max (Paul Bettany). Do I need to tell you what happens then?
Probably not because Transcendence is your basic rehash of every mad scientist movie you've ever seen. Caster wants to change the world. Evelyn gets caught up in his dream and fails to see the slippery slope his methods are leading them down. A government-employed mentor (Morgan Freeman) calls in the cavalry to stop him, and only Max is torn between all sides enough to try to stop Will and Evelyn without opting to annihilate them altogether. In the meantime, elements of Brainstorm, D.O.A., The Lawnmower Man, and The Stepford Wives all make their way into the film. Transcendence is a mess. What makes this more disappointing is that its the directorial debut of Christopher Nolan's cinematographer, Wally Pfister. Absent from Transcendence are any memorable visual ideas that would allow the movie to, pardon the pun, transcend its schlocky underpinnings. Instead, Pfister cribs from even more sci-fi classics like 2001: A Space Odyssey and Contact, giving the entire film a bloodless familiarity.
Plot holes abound, mostly revolving around the problematic Bree and her terrorists. Why are they so murderously intent on stopping progress but so quick to depend on technology in order to do so? Lacing the assassin's bullet with Polonium must have seemed like a great backup plan to Bree, but isn't it convenient that it allows Caster just enough time alive to finish developing his experimental AI? (Apropos of nothing, I also find it kind of funny that they cast Mara as the ultimate Luddite while her sister Rooney was instrumental in two films that highlight the increasing significance of the web, The Social Network and The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.)
Robbing the film of any suspense are the outcomes of Frankenstein, that pesky Star Trek episode, and just about any one of the other films I mentioned above. We all know the mad scientist will have to pay. His enablers will be punished in some way, and his friend/conscience will likely be leading the charge. Dullsville. About the only silver lining of interest here is the fact that Pfister and his mentor Nolan are both technophobes themselves, advocating for the dying art of photochemical moviemaking and strongly opposed to its inevitable replacement by digital methods. In fact, the movie was shot and transferred the tried and true way, with only a minimum of digital tools used for its visual effects. If Transcendence is the best argument Pfister can muster, then it's a losing one both photographically and metaphorically.