Warner Bros. Pictures
Rated PG-13 for sci-fi action and violence, some bloody images, brief strong language and sensuality.
Running time: 119 minutes.
Two stars out of four.
Wally Pfister has made his name as one of the top cinematographers in the industry, having worked consistently with Christopher Nolan and winning an Academy Award for Nolan’s mind-bending masterpiece “Inception.” Now, Pfister is calling the shots himself, making his directing debut with “Transcendence” — and he seems to be aiming for the same kind of philosophical questions and existential dilemmas that “Inception” posed.
Pfister certainly brings his eye for striking visual compositions and dazzling special effects to this sci-fi thriller. Several individual images are really quite lovely. But his artistic talents are in the service of a story that begins life with some thinky (if hackneyed) notions about the dangers of being too reliant on technology before turning numbingly boring and, eventually, just plain silly. It’s an ambitious misfire.
Johnny Depp is oddly monotone and detached as Dr. Will Caster, a brilliant scientist who’s been experimenting with artificial intelligence alongside his equally brilliant wife, Evelyn (Rebecca Hall), with whom he shares a charmingly boho-chic craftsman in Berkeley, Calif. When a high-tech terrorist group (led by a barely-there Kate Mara) shoots him at a conference with a radioactive bullet, he only has a few weeks to live. So he uploads his consciousness to the Internet to preserve his legacy. As one does.
Surely nothing will go wrong, right?
In no time, Will is everywhere, seizing access to millions of dollars, controlling machines and minds and — with Evelyn’s help — establishing an elaborate, underground, solar-powered bunker in a middle-of-nowhere desert town, ostensibly in the name of furthering technology. The plot holes are more like chasms, requiring great leaps of faith. The couple’s longtime friends and colleagues (Paul Bettany and Morgan Freeman, part of an esteemed supporting cast) are after them, as is the obligatory FBI agent (Cillian Murphy) leading the investigation into who’s targeting Will and where he is now.
Will’s omniscient, omnipresent quest for power should be frightening. The multitiered hunt to shut him down should be thrilling. The conflicted position Evelyn finds herself in should be heartbreaking. (And Hall’s performance truly is the best part here, because at least she infuses the story with some recognizable humanity). Instead “Transcendence” is none of the above. Working from a script by Jack Paglen, Pfister has made a film that’s actually quite talky, stodgy, dull and overlong.
“Transcendence” also represents a misguided use of Depp’s talents. He’s such a physically creative and fearless actor that it seems like a strange choice to trap him in avatar form inside flat-screen monitors for the majority of the film’s two-hour running time. This Max Headroom version of Depp’s character never registers as a force to fear, despite his growing appetite for control. He’s sedate, annoyingly needy, passive-aggressive and — ultimately — a source of unintentional laughs, pathetically popping up all over the place, begging his wife to talk to him.
Depp hasn’t exactly had a great few years between “The Tourist,” “The Rum Diary,” “Dark Shadows” and “Lone Ranger” (although the animated “Rango” was gorgeous and a great use of his off-kilter charm). But you can see why he would be drawn to the pedigreed team involved with “Transcendence” as well as to its themes, which couldn’t be more relevant. Still, the perils-of-technology parable has been told more grippingly countless times since the proliferation of personal computers began. Hell, “War Games” is scarier than this.
As for the man-vs.-machine interface at work, “Her” made that connection more believable, more moving, and that has everything to do with Spike Jonze’s script. “Her” always treated Scarlett Johansson’s character, the operating system Samantha, like a real and complex person which made her romance with the lonely Joaquin Phoenix totally relatable, despite its innate absurdity. But, as in “Her,” “Transcendence” also features a human surrogate for Will’s physical longings, courtesy of Clifton Collins Jr. When he puts the moves on Evelyn, the moment should be poignant, but instead provokes squirms and giggles.
When it’s all over, you will turn on your iPhone and ask Siri to find you a good restaurant for a bite to eat near the theater. And you will have learned nothing.