Hey, remember that awesome back story to the ‘Terminator’ movies where Skynet takes over the world? Everyone involved with ‘Transcendence’ sure does. Too bad they didn’t remember any of the ‘Terminator’ franchise’s action, compelling storytelling or memorable characters while they were at it.
More than anything else, ‘Transcendence’ is a lesson in how tone can kill a movie. The premise is goofy, the science is half-baked and the message is obvious. However, it’s a summer blockbuster wannabe, so those things wouldn’t matter quite so much if it were bright, colorful and silly. Sadly, ‘Transcendence’ is none of these things. It’s serious, deadly serious, as if it’s saying important things through pulp.
In other words, it’s the type of movie Christopher Nolan would make. Wouldn’t ya know it, the man produced it and even got his longtime cinematographer Wally Pfister his first directing gig to run the show. The trouble is that Christopher Nolan is very good at what he does and can make stories about superheroes and dream thieves feel like they deserve art film reverence. Pfister, on the other hand, doesn’t seem to have moved past making pretty pictures despite the fact that his new job requires much more. He got the stars and resources to make a Christopher Nolan movie. Too bad he didn’t get Nolan to write the script as well.
Johnny Depp stars as artificial intelligence guru Dr. Will Caster, who just designed a computer with a sense of consciousness. It’s a big scientific breakthrough and even Morgan Freeman is impressed. (At this point, it doesn’t matter who Freeman plays in a movie; he’s just Morgan Freeman). However, other people aren’t so impressed. In particular, a group of anti-technology terrorists known as neo-luddites (yup, that term is used in the movie and not treated as a joke) are so infuriated with Caster that they shoot him with a radioactive bullet (once again, not a joke).
Caster has only a few weeks left to live, so his scientist wife (Rebecca Hall) and scientist friend (Paul Bettany) decide to upload his consciousness into artificial intelligence so that his mind can live forever. It’s a movie, so that concept works, but the neo-luddites (led by Kate Mara) somehow find out and attack. Next thing you know, Bettany is kidnapped by the terrorists and Hall runs away with virtual Depp. Flash-forward a few years and Hall/Depp now have an underground super science lair in the desert where computer Depp is slowly starting to create a means to take over the world. Meanwhile, Bettany is now one of the terrorists and somehow knows what’s up, so he decides it’s time to take that Johnny Depp living computer brain down… or whatever.
There are some compelling ideas at the core of ‘Transcendence’, enough to explain how all of these actors who should know better signed onto such a stupid project. Unfortunately, the ham-fisted script by Jack Paglen steals all its ideas from better sci-fi writers and only adds facile characters, confusing narrative twists, and massive plot holes. The movie still could have been fun if played in an over-the-top manner, but Pfister treats everything far too seriously for any camp appeal. All the actors speak in hushed tones and give muted performances. It feels like Pfister’s only direction to his cast was, “Even more seriously, please,” and the screenplay offers nothing in the way of characterization.
Pfister delivers a handful of striking images, but beyond that, his directorial debut is a muddled mess that’s neither an entertaining blockbuster nor a thoughtful sci-fi experiment. It’s nothing for nobody. Weirdly for a movie loudly expounding the importance of messy human life over computerized perfection, it’s as cold, calculated and inhumane a film as you’ll see all summer. Maybe that was Pfister’s point? Who knows? Regardless, he delivered a pretty dull and stupid movie that doesn’t even offer fodder for ironic laughter. ‘Transcendence’ will work best as an airplane sleep aid. You can expect it to be playing on planes well before the end of summer.