Great news if you were looking for an extended, unfunny parody of Christopher Nolan’s movies, because Transcendence is out this week. This good-looking, arid, windy bore is fully convinced that it is a Nolan film, with its big stars, expansive subject, and general air of being very, very serious and thinky indeed. Yet it’s missing pretty much everything that draws people to Nolan’s movies.
The story begins some time in the near future with a public prediction by charismatic tech mogul Will Caster (Johnny Depp) that the time of “transcendence” — when programmers, perhaps his own, will build a sentient computer more intelligent than the entire human race — is in the offing. A Luddite group calling itself RIFT believes his predictions enough to carry out a coordinated series of terrorist attacks that kill dozens of scientists working on artificial intelligence, culminating in Will being mortally wounded by a poison-laced bullet. As Will prepares to die, his desperate wife Evelyn (Rebecca Hall) learns of a breakthrough made by a murdered neurobiologist and figures out a way to give her husband digital immortality by uploading his mind into a software program. The whole story is told through the eyes of the Casters’ closest friend, Max (Paul Bettany), who becomes a prisoner of RIFT and mysteriously winds up joining their efforts.
The Christopher Nolan resemblance is no accident, as first-time director Wally Pfister served as the cinematographer on all of Nolan’s films going back to Memento. Yet surely Nolan would have given the script here more thought. Why are the Casters so sure that technology is going to do great things for the human race and the planet? (I mean, have they not seen the Terminator movies?) For that matter, why are the RIFTies so sure that transcendence will be bad? Do they simply want to halt the progress of technology until there’s been time to think through the implications, or do they want a return to the Stone Age? (If it’s the latter, they get a pretty good approximation, as the movie’s opening makes clear.)
The unanswered questions filter down to character levels. Once the dead Will goes digital, why does this crunchy, nature-loving soul become a self-perpetuating menace to all human existence? Has the translation of his personality to ones and zeros been faulty, or is this the way a person behaves when he no longer has to fear death? First-time screenwriter Jack Paglen seems positively uninterested in such issues, and that is fatal to his aim of making a grand statement about technology and how people use it.
The movie could have provided some compensation for these shortcomings in more visceral ways. Pfister does appear to grasp the importance of throwing the audience some red meat in the form of action sequences. The trouble is, he’s got no flair for it. The terrorist attacks at the beginning (intercut with the Casters’ rosy presentation at a tech conference) are botched terribly, as are the later bits when the U.S. military tries to move in on a desolate desert town that Digital Will has colonized. The movie is supposed to be about the beauties and the dangers of technology, but neither of those qualities comes through. It’s not for lack of opportunities, either. When a worker who’s been brutally mugged gets patched up in a few minutes by some of Digital Will’s nanorobotic surgeons, the scene should be gasp-inducing. Instead, the medical miracle just sits there on the screen. The only time the movie approaches a “holy crap” moment is early on, when Digital Will first comes online in the form of a single line of text appearing after an old-fashioned cursor prompt: “Is anyone there?”
In such a rarefied environment, the actors (including Nolan veterans like Morgan Freeman and Cillian Murphy) seem bereft of guidance. All in all, Transcendence gives us very little to latch onto other than a few pretty pictures of water droplets conjured up by Pfister and cinematographer Jess Hall. Lots of people recently have been making films about technology and where it’s taking us, and it’s inevitable that some of them would turn out to be like this one, which talks at tedious length without actually saying anything. In response to Digital Will’s query: There’s nobody here.
Starring Johnny Depp and Rebecca Hall. Directed by Wally Pfister. Written by Jack Paglen. Rated PG-13.