What happens when you take an A-list cast, a tantalizing concept, and an Oscar-winning cinematographer making his directorial debut? Unfortunately, you get Transcendence, a dull-as-dishwater thriller that opened to tepid reviews earlier this year. Loathe as I am to agree with the critics, they were right about this one.
Johnny Depp and Rebecca Hall play Will and Evelyn Caster, scientists working on the world’s first sentient computer. Will predicts such a computer will eventually create a singularity (the hypothesis that artificial intelligence will one day exceed human intelligence). During a presentation, Will is shot by a member of an anti-technology terrorist organization (RIFT, or Revolutionary Independence from Technology). With only a few weeks to live, Evelyn decides to upload Will’s consciousness into the neural network they’d been working on. Will’s best friend and fellow scientist Max (Paul Bettany) protests: “It won’t be Will… humankind isn’t ready for this…” Max is subsequently captured by Bree, leader of RIFT, and eventually joins their crusade. The government is also suspicious of the Caster’s situation.
After reading this article, it’s clear that something was lost along the way. Paglen’s original script was on the Black List (no, not that list – this Black List is a yearly compilation of the best unproduced spec scripts). It featured some cool action set pieces with nano-engineered “super soldiers” as well as a love triangle between Will, Evelyn, and Max. The final film features no love triangle, and no big set pieces. Sure, there are some pyrotechnics courtesy of the RIFT goons… and that’s it. No super soldiers, just modified humans who don’t do much of anything. Since Will’s intentions were only benign, I suppose the filmmakers were hesitant to have him kill anyone. And if this was supposed to be some kind of twist (he’s not evil, he’s good!), then it was completely lost on me. At no point did I think Will would turn to the dark side. This film takes such a microscopic view of things – there’s no sense of dread or impending doom. We see nano-particles traveling along wind currents and forests re-growing and it’s like, “Gee, Will’s plan doesn’t sound so bad!” We also get a flash-forward at the beginning where we see Max in a tech-free future. So there… now we know how it ends, thirty seconds after the opening logo. What a horrible miscalculation!
As per usual, tech stuff is all top-notch. The Brightwood facility looks pretty cool, all sterile white and endless corridors. The cinematography is pleasant, though Pfister relies a little too much on “artsy” shots of water droplets and dewy windows, as if to say THIS MOVIE IS IMPORTANT! The score is droning background noise. The CGI nano-particles are petty neat, though. At the end, Bettany visits the Caster’s old house and notices a drop of water falling off a flower petal and into a puddle of oil… which is instantly cleansed. All of this takes place underneath Will’s home-made Faraday cage (a copper mesh which blocks electromagnetic fields). So perhaps there is hope after all?
Not for this movie.