When I was a young man and the Internet was new, I made the same joke every time I dialed-up and heard those dissonant, scratchy tones. “Chhhhhhh-CHHHHHH-Chhhhhh” my modem would bray, and as soon as there was silence I’d turn to whomever was in the room and conspiratorially say, “all right, we’re in.”
‘Transcendence,’ the first feature film directed by Christopher Nolan’s longtime cinematographer Wally Pfister, is two straight hours of that “all right, we’re in,” with (slightly) updated peripherals. Featuring more technobabble than a middling episode of ‘Star Trek: Voyager,’ Rebecca Hall and Johnny Depp star as husband and wife computer geniuses who, along with artificial intelligence labs across the country, are attacked by a band of “neo-Luddite” terrorists.
Depp’s Dr. Will Caster is hit with a polonium bullet and his death by radiation poisoning is irreversible. But, in the chaos Hall’s Evelyn (ahem EVE-lyn, EVE, Tree of Knowledge EVE, get it?) finds new research that suggests Will’s consciousness and intelligence can be uploaded and stored into a mainframe computer.
Aided, albeit skeptically, by their chum Max (played by Paul Bettany – that’s right, this is the ‘The Tourist’ reunion you’ve been waiting for boyeeee) they are able to do so and, right on cue, the dangers of Playing God are made evident.
Well, actually, hold that thought. Because the dangers of playing God are what’s on the menu, but the movie makes a poor case presenting that argument. ‘Transcendence’ lets narrative inertia fill in where the screenplay doesn’t. We know this transcendence of human knowledge is gonna be bad, but the movie doesn’t really show it.
Will 2.0 (now tapped into the web) is able to do amazing things. He manipulates stocks to create a flush corporation, uses the dough to buy a town, commissions the construction of a desert lab facility and then digs in to nanotechnology-led biotech miracles. At his new home of Brightwood (ahem Burning Bush, get it?), Computo-Depp is literally giving eyesight to the blind. It’s a great thing. Who wouldn’t love this?
Well, Bettany’s Max doesn’t, nor does Morgan Freeman (maybe the Voice of God doesn’t like anyone else behaving like God?) nor do the terrorists from earlier (Kate Mara) or the government (Cillian Murphy). Since the movie needs good guys and bad guys ‘Transcendence’ decides that everyone must join forces against Will, who naturally goes power mad and turns his healed citizens into superstrong mind-linked goons like The Borg. There’s no motivation for this, other than “uh oh, we need some action in this movie before it ends.”
A very telling scene comes in the backhalf, when Murphy asks Freeman if the computer entity really is a sentient version of Will or just a facsimile. “It doesn’t matter anymore!” Freeman barks back. Well, okay, that’s easy enough.
For a movie directed by a cinematographer you’d think it would have a splendid visual point of view. ‘Transcendence’ has its share of cool shots, but no real stamp. It also has a sci-fi conceit (which I won’t spoil) that tries to position puddles as a frightening menace. See enough movies and eventually you’ll get to the ones with ominous puddles. We are evolving indeed.‘Transcendence’ opens in theaters on April 18.
Jordan Hoffman is a writer, critic and lapsed filmmaker living in New York City. His work can also be seen on Badass Digest and StarTrek.com.