"Transcendence" Frustrates, Fascinates In Equal Measure

Directorial debuts don’t come much loftier than this. “Transcendence” director Wally Pfister is best known as Christopher Nolan’s director of photography, having lensed the director’s entire filmography dating back to “Memento.” And like much of Nolan’s work, Pfister’s first go-round as a helmer is high in concept, blurring the line between science and science fiction. At the same time, it’s also denser and far less action-oriented, making for an understated techno-thriller that’s likely to alienate many. It’s slow, deliberate, and frequently mistakes theme for plot. But for those who like their sci-fi with a heaping side of ambition, it just might hit a nerve. When it comes to science fiction, thoughtfulness is often half the battle, and “Transcendence” wants desperately to engage its audience.

The spirit of late author Michael Crichton (The Andromeda Strain, Jurassic Park) looms large over “Transcendence,” its mix of speculative technology and ethical quandaries making for a familiar, comfortable fit for those so inclined. It’s the sort of high risk, low reward, slow burn spectacle that’s never quite been in style in Hollywood, but movie fans will recognize its 70s-style paranoia and 90s-esque technological underpinnings. It’s no coincidence that those were the decades in which Crichton gained most of his notoriety. As a result, Pfister’s film is a film out of its time. It’s not inherently commercial, it’s not especially timely, and it’s loaded with movie stars for no particular reason. But, for all these curiosities and more, it’s often a remarkable piece.

Johnny Depp stars as scientist Will Caster, the world’s foremost authority on artificial intelligence (AI). In his crusade to make machines self-aware – for the good of the planet, he argues – Will amasses some dangerous enemies, namely an anti-AI group called R.I.F.T. (Revolutionary Independence From Technology). Will’s wife and co-worker, Evelyn (Rebecca Hall), coerces him into putting on a lecture for potential sponsors, an event co-hosted by friend and colleague, Max Waters (Paul Bettany). Will’s uneventful talk is cross-cut with the destruction of various AI labs, followed by a post-lecture assassination attempt on Will himself, one that initially leaves him no worse for the wear.

But it’s soon discovered that the bullet that grazed him has induced slow, painful, and incurable radioactive poisoning, and he’s given a month to live. At the behest of Evelyn, Will allows her and Max to make a hurried, unprecedented attempt at uploading his consciousness to an advanced network of computers. All of this might sound spoiler-heavy, but it’s mostly first act exposition, signaling the film’s intent to cover lots of ground in its relatively brief 2-hour running time. First time writer Jack Paglen struggles with the mounds of expository dialogue, little of it reading naturally. Luckily, Pfister and his scribe have two inimitably talented actors (and Nolan stalwarts) on hand to deliver it – Morgan Freeman as Joseph Tagger, AI researcher, and Cillian Murphy as Donald Buchnanan, FBI agent.

But while Paglen’s dialogue is occasionally clunky, the screenplay’s emotional core stays true, as does its multitude of thematic undercurrents. When Evelyn finally summons the digital version of Will and uploads him to the internet, giving him (or it) full cogency, her raw, primal grief not only renders her selfish actions understandable, but nearly rational. Hall is dynamite in her role, but even more impressive is Bettany, serving as the moral compass of the piece. Caught between sincere anguish for his friends and what he knows to be ethically arduous territory, his journey feels genuine, even amidst the oddball sci-fi trappings of the pic’s third act.

While Max is cognizant of this moral gray area, the rest of the players inhabit it, the ground constantly shifting beneath their feet, the narrative thrust always just out of focus – a tactic that will madden some and thrill others. As Will – eventually entrenched in a customized techno-bunker in the New Mexico desert – becomes more powerful, his grasp begins to exceeds his reach. In developing nanotechnology that can repair both man and man-made structures – an admittedly underexplained narrative construct – our pseudo-protagonist gains more power than he knows what to do with. Will as a Christ figure is yet another allegorical fastball thrown into the story, reframing everything that came before. As a result, repeat viewings of “Transcendence” are likely to add to its intrigue.

Thematically, the pic is an embarrassment of riches. It can be watched purely as a meditation on AI, or the nature of grief, or as a tragic love story, or as an allegory for Christ, or all of the above. It’s often visually stunning, occasionally disturbing, infrequently hokey – a goofy subplot involving Clifton Collins Jr. sets the table for the film’s undercooked climax – and almost always fascinating. But some audiences will reject it on principle alone. The few action scenes that are present are the nadir of the piece, few of the pic’s lofty questions are given concrete answers, and the excess of exposition gets in the way of character development. But in a world full of uninspired sci-fi, “Transcendence” gets an “A” for effort, competently melding art-film visual flourishes with a surprisingly intricate story and some pleasing performances. A must-see for interested parties.

-J. Olson

Rating: ★★★ 1/2 out of ★★★★★ (Good)

Release Date: April 18, 2014
Studio: Warner Bros. Pictures
Director: Wally Pfister
Screenwriter: Jack Paglen
Starring: Johnny Depp, Paul Bettany, Rebecca Hall, Kate Mara, Morgan Freeman, Cillian Murphy
MPAA Rating: PG-13 (for sci-fi action and violence, some bloody images, brief strong language and sensuality)