Transcendence is a
good film that aspires to greatness and falls a bit short. Jack Paglen’s
screenplay grapples with the always-relevant question of how far science can,
or should, go toward creating artificial intelligence. Yet despite the modern setting
and visual effects it’s reminiscent of cautionary tales dating back to Mary
Shelley and Robert Louis Stevenson. The ultimate lesson: there are some things
man was not meant to know.
Suspense is muted by the movie’s flashback framework, which reveals
the overall ending in the opening scene. Knowing this undercuts the narrative
impact of everything that follows, to some degree; it’s just a matter of learning
the particulars. Fortunately, the story is provocative and original enough to
hold our interest.
Johnny Depp plays a world-renowned scientist who is the
victim of a terrorist attack; as his life ebbs away, his devoted wife (Rebecca
Hall) decides to upload the artificial “brain” he’s been developing. His body
may be shutting down, but she hopes his mind will live on. His best friend and
colleague (Paul Bettany) tries to persuade her that the artificial intelligence
won’t really be “him” any more, but she persists. Trouble ensues, big time.
My terse synopsis doesn’t embrace the story’s finer points
or capture the heartbeat of the movie, which comes from solid performances in
the leading roles. It’s nice to see Depp playing someone relatively normal for the
first time in a long while; he and Hall make a good, credible couple. Bettany
(in possibly the most normal role he’s ever
played) is equally persuasive as their closest ally. Morgan Freeman brings his
usual authority to a role that demands little of him, and other supporting
parts are well filled.
Yet for all its high-minded ideas and eye-opening effects, Transcendence could be reduced to a
short-subject without losing much. Once we get the idea of an all-powerful
super-intelligence taking over the world, the specifics are just so much window
dressing. This may be part of a greater challenge facing science-fiction
writers trying to keep ahead of day-to-day reality—or moviemakers trying to
find concepts that can shock a modern audience—but I felt more alarmed by the
future world domination laid out in Captain
America: The Winter Soldier.
In his directorial debut, cinematographer Wally Pfister
never lets the impressive visuals eclipse his characters. One could actually
describe the film as a love story complicated by science, rather than a
futuristic yarn in which a couple become entangled. Transcendence is well-crafted on every level, and while it was
executive produced by Pfister’s longtime collaborator, Christopher Nolan, it is
neither pretentious nor self-serious, I’m happy to report. (It was shot on
motion picture film, a medium both Pfister and Nolan are trying to keep alive.
I saw it in a digital IMAX presentation where it looked exceedingly good.)
Unlike many major studio releases, this one doesn’t aim for
the lowest common denominator, and for that I am grateful. I’m only sorry the
movie didn’t engage my heart and mind as it sets out to do.