Transcendence is a science fiction story, but it's very much about faith. Early on, a member of a "neo-Luddite" group confronts Will Caster (Johnny Depp) about his work. Caster is promising a future in which a massive artificial intelligence will contain more knowledge than the world has ever collectively possessed, and the man – played by Lukas Haas, whom many of us first saw as a tiny Amish child in Witness, where he was also counseled about the dangers of modernity and technology – accuses him of trying to create a god. "Isn't that what mankind has always done?" Caster volleys back.
The story is basically this: Johnny Depp plays Caster, a genius researcher who, faced with a failing body, has his consciousness uploaded to a supercomputer by his desperate wife Evelyn (Rebecca Hall) and best friend Max (Paul Bettany). Can you reproduce a human soul with a machine? Should you tinker with the work of creation? Whether you think of these questions as hackneyed or eternal – or both – may dictate how much you care about the story.
For all the reasons explained in Ian Buckwalter's review, the film doesn't really work. The story doesn't make any sense – not in the "E.T. shouldn't be able to make a bike fly" kind of way, but in the "lacks internal cohesion" kind of way. There is a tantalizing moment when a particularly menacing shot of Hall shot across the top of a monitor suggests that Transcendence is about to embrace a more intriguing direction and become a horror film, but it doesn't. It insists upon a path that's far less interesting than outright horror would have been, and muddles itself in the process.
It's a fundamentally silly movie, but the flip side is that it's extraordinarily pretty, and it's an opportunity to see what a very thoughtful director does with visuals in a story about science and nature, man and God.
There was good reason to suspect Transcendence would look good. Wally Pfister, the director, is best known as a cinematographer who won an Oscar for Inception. It was one of seven Christopher Nolan films he's worked on since 2000, including Nolan's Batman trilogy and Memento. It was unlikely to be ugly. It was even more unlikely to be poorly thought out visually, even though it precisely seems poorly thought out as a story.
What's most noticeable on the surface – it's obvious even in something as short as the trailer – is Pfister's love of corridors. Not only is the lab where much of the sketchy science takes place a maze of long, shiny, sterile white corridors down which the camera is constantly gazing, but the racks that hold Will's supercomputer constitute a reverse version – the same setup, only in black. Want more? An outside array of solar panels with a path down the middle creates the same effect, as does a series of stone arches through which Bettany at one point approaches the camera.
There's a fine line between a motif and a tic, and the corridors here are treading right on that line. But when they work, they create a sort of infinite space, while at the same time, you can imagine yourself becoming tinier and tinier until it you blink out in a dot and vanish into oblivion. (Hey, it's the inevitability of death! Also known as planned obsolescence for humans.)
Early on, the story as it stands has a tendency toward feeling cold. Everyone in it is a tech genius. It's about artificial intelligence – the ultimate displacement of the human with the mechanical. It's all about the presumption that we live in a society of increasingly chilly dependence on technology, and that there's menace in it. It's the natural (in the language of the exchange between Depp and Haas, the God-made) world under threat from the man-made (and God-making) world.
But over and over, particularly in the first third of the film, we get luscious close-ups of things like flowers and water droplets in slow motion, anchoring the story to its sense of the real and the natural. Similarly, Will and Evelyn's backyard has a huge garden, and even as the story grows darker, they seem to live just at the edge of a nature sanctuary. Not only that, but Will has built a "dead zone" into that garden. He has made it a place where you can't get a signal on your phone. (If you are in this garden and a snake suggests you enjoy a delicious apple, just say no. My guess is that if you eat it, you'll immediately begin receiving texts.)
What's more, the very moment that seems the most like a Godless mechanical intrusion – the copying of Will's brain onto a drive – takes place in an airy, naturally lit building where the windows are blown out with bright sunshine. Instead of feeling like a lab or an operating room, they're in a sprawling, junk-filled warehouse that's lit like, and feels like, they're in a barn birthing a calf. The imagery tethers the story to nature and God, even as it moves closer to man and machine.
But it slips loose of that imagery as Will's computer self, Will3000 or whatever you want to call him, begins to dominate. Rather than enjoying the intriguing shots of droplets – which are peacocking a bit, but what do you want? He won an Oscar – we start to spend all of our time looking at computers. For a long stretch, we're spending entirely too much time staring at screens, which is always boring, as they flood with random numbers and letters, the way they always do in movies about supercomputers. It doesn't get a lot better when we start looking at Will's talking head on the same overhead screens they use to show CNN at the airport. It's just not as interesting as what's gone before.
If, in fact, supercomputers display a screen full of random text scrolling and roiling when they're hard at work, then the movies have it right. But usually, it seems like a rough and unpersuasive idea of computers that could have been featured on MacGyver. It stands in stark contrast to the way that Spike Jonze's Her – a film with some similar themes – made the technology look smaller and more familiar, the better to present its philosophical questions with.
There's a very mise-en-place look to Transcendence; it never looks less than impeccably arranged. But with all the effort that went into reconnecting the story to humanity and nature using little shreds of the natural world, it's in service of an undercooked mashup of 2001: A Space Odyssey, Her, Frankenstein, Pet Sematary, "The Monkey's Paw," and An Inconvenient Truth.
But boy, it sure is good-lookin'.