The internet is gone and so goes civilization in the opening minutes of “Transcendence,” the directorial debut of accomplished cinematographer Wally Pfister, a heady science fiction effort that smartly explores mankind’s vulnerabilities in the information age. That’s a helluva way to start a story, and unsurprisingly, nothing that comes next can compete. A polished, serious-minded alternative to the action-packed momentum of most contemporary blockbusters, “Transcendance” offers a keen look at the dangers of relying too heavily on computers for interacting with society. But Pfister struggles to make Jack Paglen’s moody screenplay as engaging as the ideas provoked by its premise.
Yet while never as dynamically involving as Christopher Nolan’s “Inception,” for which longtime Nolan director of photography Pfister justifiably won an Oscar, “Transcendence” still grapples with provocative existential concepts in similarly thoughtful terms. Despite its inherently silly premise — a dedicated scientist (Johnny Depp) manages to transplant his consciousness to the cloud moments before his death — “Transcendence” asks enough brainy questions to justify its penetrative outlook.
Following the post-apocalyptic prelude, in which fellow researcher Max Waters (Paul Bettany) visits the decrepit former residence of Dr. Will Caster (Depp), “Transcendence” flashes back to modern times, when Caster works alongside his wife and colleague Evelyn (Rebecca Hall) on the possibilities of transferring intelligence to the digital realm. Aided by an older colleague (Morgan Freeman), the team shows tremendous promise, but naturally faces as much scorn from the outside world as it does curiosity. In an early presentation of his theories, Caster conceives of creating a super-intelligent computer with the ability to rival the IQ of all human beings in the history of consciousness combined. “In other words,” a someone shouts from the audience, “you want to create a god.” The doctor stares down his heckler with a focused gaze that borders on campy overstatement. “Isn’t that what man has always wanted?” he replies.
If “Transcendence” is at times over the top, it’s still the shrewdest mad scientist movie in recent memory. After an extremist faction attacks the doctor’s lab and shoots him with a poisonous dart, he’s suddenly facing his own imminent demise, and implores his wife to upload his consciousness before his death. Desperate to keep him around, she plays along — but when the late Caster’s voice emanates from a hard drive, Evelyn’s colleagues sound a note of caution: Is that really her dead husband, or just a digital representation of him? By implication, the scenario raises the classic case of Theseus’s paradox, which asks whether a ship that has each of its parts replaced by new ones retains its status as the original object. To its credit, the screenplay never overtly says as much. It’s the rare case of a big budget spectacle that trusts viewers to think along with it.
Unfortunately, the couple’s ensuing plan doesn’t quite add up. When Evelyn takes root in a ghost town and helps her digitized husband set up shop with an array of satellite dishes and some undefined scheme to change the world, the cryptic nature of their scheme holds some promise. But “Transcendence” loses its grip on the mystery in play when the pieces pile up. By the time Caster has created a zombie army of locals — OK, they’re called “hybrids” —partly ingrained with his thoughts, the Pfister struggles to cobble together a compelling action finale (the concluding desert showdown involves tanks facing off against Depp’s CGI tendrils, and neither hold much visual appeal).
Yet even when the explosions take over, “Transcendence” retrains a muted quality not unlike the grave aura of Nolan’s own movies, leaving the impression that the spectacle is beside the point. By contemporary standards, it’s a stylish, low key movie that struggles from an overbearing stern tone, but retains a certain intelligent allure for that same reason.
Setting the stage for “an unavoidable collision between mankind and technology,” Pfister’s debut struggles to unite several uneven ingredients. Depp is largely too restrained for his own good, and when he’s reborn as a pixelated face on countless screens, he becomes something of an accidental cartoon out of sync with the movie’s other more realistic ingredients. But Hall, as his recklessly loyal partner in crime, displays enough credible pathos for their chemistry to hold water, particularly once the bond is test when Freeman’s character implores her to turn against her computerized lover. Their romance, an outrageous love affair between man and machine, is like a baroque, gender-inverted riff on the computer-based relationship in Spike Jonze’s “Her” — a parallel that indicates fears at the center of “Transcendence” that signal its lasting relevance no matter its flaws. Just as the cheesy 1995 Sandra Bullock drama “The Net” reflected a sense of the unknown associated with the evolution of technological communication, “Transcendence” implies that the machines have irrevocably changed our relationship to reality in ways we have only begun to fathom.
At its worst, “Transcendence” is a messy, confused melodrama. It has the atmosphere of a film noir but the tempo of an espionage movie without doing justice to either tradition. Aside from the lyrical images of water falling slowly from a petal that bookends the story, much of the imagery is frustratingly bland (an especially ironic outcome given Pfister’s background). The director concocts a few compelling images, such as clouds sweeping across the desert landscape that eventually becomes the doctor’s lair, but most of its interiors are bathed in empty shadows.
Nevertheless, in the context of its plot, the routine aspects of “Transcendance” — from the clichéd shots of fuzzy code scrolling across various screens to the thundering soundtrack at every turn — imply a wry statement on the mechanization of storytelling. Whether or not Depp’s character truly achieves singularity he seeks, “Transcendence” accurately reflects a struggle between man and machine currently unfolding in real life, albeit in less outrageous terms. The ambiguous, awe-inspiring closing image is tentatively idealistic. By keeping the door open to any number of future outcomes, Pfister and Paglen may have created a work ahead of its time that simultaneously embraces technological progress and shudders at its power. It’s a flawed achievement that, in a century, might seem prescient — whether or not its bleaker predictions come true.
Criticwire Grade: B-
HOW WILL IT PLAY? Warner Bros. releases “Transcendence” nationwide on Friday. Mixed word of mouth and Depp’s less than robust box office appeal might make it a tough sell, but could garner solid opening weekend box office returns due to the relative lack of competition.