Mucks up the Works

If Transcendence looks like a movie made by Christopher Nolan, it is because the movie is the directorial debut of Wally Pfister, who photographed every movie Nolan has made since Memento.  The movie also features a sci-fi heavy premise that sounds a bit like Inception, only replacing dreams with artificial intelligence.  Unfortunately, whereas Inception truly felt like it was something new and exciting, Transcendence pulls too many punches to truly be measured in the same category as Nolan’s film.

The movie introduces us to Will and Evelyn Caster, a husband and wife pair of computer scientists who have devoted their professional lives to the development of artificial intelligence.  Their work does not sit well with an anti-technology terrorist group, who opens the film by attacking multiple computer labs and leaving Will in the hospital with a gunshot wound.  The bullet was laced with radioactive toxins and Will finds himself with only a month left to live.  In a desperate move to keep Will with her, Evelyn decides to upload his consciousness into a computer.

Johnny Depp as Will CasterAs crazy as that idea sounds, it appears to work.  Although his body may have died, Will continues to communicate with his wife as what might be the world’s first self-aware computer.  At his request, Evelyn connects Will to the Internet which gives him limitless power.  They escape to a small rural town and begin building the world’s most technologically advanced computer lab.  Soon, however, Will’s motivations come into question, even by Evelyn.  The terrorist group that opened the film has now recruited the military and even some of Will’s former friends and colleagues to help them shut down what is looking more and more like a global hostile takeover.

One thing you know going into a movie directed by an Oscar-winning cinematographer is that it is going to look good.  With his director of photography Jess Hall, Pfister does present a movie that looks good throughout.  The difference in ideologies between the terrorist group and computer Will are represented visually: very naturalistic for the former, sterile for the latter.  The visuals, along with everything else, get muddled in the movie’s final act.  To be fair, though, they weren’t exactly given the prettiest computer effects with which to work.

That is not to say that the special effects are bad.  On the contrary, for the most part they are very well done.  The problem is that in the final act, the plot requires that there be clouds of tiny computers or nanomachines swarming throughout the environment.  As far as computer-generated imagery has come over the years, they still haven’t managed to find a way to make clouds of mini-bots look, well, pretty.

The effects and the cinematography look muddled in the final act, and muddled is also a good word to describe the movie’s plot.  Things are clear in the beginning, but in the second half of the movie it is almost as if first-time screenwriter Jack Paglen started hedging his bets, in hopes of appealing to a wider audience.  The movie’s message gets muddled along with the plot and at the end we are not really sure whether this is a pro-technology movie or an anti-technology movie.  It is probably trying to be a little of both, but its failure to clarify its opinions keeps the movie from feeling worthy of its fascinating premise.

As far as comparisons to other movies go, Transcendence feels closer to the Terminator franchise than it does to Inception.  Will’s self-aware computer is akin to that franchise’s Skynet computer around the time when it decides to take over the world.  Pfister’s movie unfortunately lacks the excitement and entertainment value of those other films, largely because the movie’s few action set pieces are bland and ineffective.

Transcendence does offer up some interesting things to think about, but it loses itself as it heads towards an ending that just fails to impress.

Transcendence is rated PG-13 for “sci-fi action and violence, some bloody images, brief strong language, and sensuality.”   There are a couple of disturbing images that walk the line between PG-13 and R, but on the whole the movie balances out to be an acceptable PG-13.


Courtesy of a local publicist, Jeff attended a promotional screening of Transcendence.