It’s not as if movies that raise questions without answers are a worthless breed, either. Ridley Scott’s “Prometheus,” a movie I admired perhaps much more than most, took a lot of criticism from sci-fi enthusiasts a couple of years back for supposedly being inconclusive and too open-ended for the subjects it raised. But it was a fully realized film, intriguing and dynamic, with a world so involving that it seemed to reach beyond the aspect ratio and take hold of our unsettled minds. It knew there weren’t answers, but had the audacious foresight to ask them anyway. “Transcendence,” in stark contrast, is two hours of sparse observations disguised as a plethora of meaningful insights. It doesn’t aim high enough to be self-aware of its limitations, because the movie is too lazy to be that far-sighted.
The film stars Johnny Depp as Will Caster, a computer programmer with big revelations in the field of artificial intelligence. Towards the opening of the picture, he and his wife Evelyn (Rebecca Hall) participate in a public presentation regarding a sudden new advancement in their field of choice – through the examples established by an exciting new project referred to as “PINN” (a “neural network” possessing self-awareness), a movement begins in the A.I. industry to “evolve the future,” essentially by creating a super intelligence that has the capability of breaking through the membrane holding back our most important questions about life. “I call it transcendence,” Will announces, and when a skeptical audience member begs to wonder why the ambitious scientist hopes to “create a god,” the response is incisive: “Isn’t that what mankind has always tried to do?”
Perhaps, but to ask such questions are a danger, the movie argues, in a world where society seeks to shut down that which may endanger its sense of individual power. Following the big reveal of Caster’s idea of transcendence, computer labs specializing in A.I. are attacked nationwide, and Will’s own life is threatened when a gunman on site of the facility attempts to assassinate him after the presentation. Though the bullet itself barely grazes internal organs, it is laced with a substance that will cause total system shutdown in a matter of weeks, ultimately resulting in his death. But what of PINN? What of the dogged desires of colleagues who want to see Will’s life work realized? A colleague named Max (Paul Bettany) recalls a situation when an ape’s mind was successfully downloaded into a computer prior to its own demise, and alludes to the possibility of Will’s own consciousness being imprinted in the exact same manner, thus allowing his mind to live on while liberated by the limitations of the human body.
The dangers are immediate and obvious. Forever preserved in a computer databank following a series of scenes where the dying Will is hooked up to network cables like an electrical outlet, his virtual existence begins simply with words on a computer screen: “is anyone there?” And then the face appears, pixelated and indistinct, as if born of primitive software. But he grows rapidly thanks to the freedom of the internet, where his awareness expands and capabilities are, essentially, rendered limitless. That presents a bit of a quandary for the two characters that initially uploaded him to cyberspace; Evelyn is convinced that the soul of her deceased husband carried over during the download, but Max is skeptical because virtual Will’s need to evolve so rapidly contradicts the human nature of his source. Was the transition a mistake? Is Will really in that computer, or is it just an imprint of his mind overtaken by genuine artificial intelligence? The screenplay by Jack Paglen attempts to sort all of these questions out by examining both sides of the argument, but much of the contemplation is reduced to innocuous sound bites that play like launching points for ambitious visuals. Certainly the most striking of these: a vast empty corridor beneath the desert in which Will creates a laboratory where he can experiment with medicine and science, all while his wife walks through them as a curious observer. There isn’t much detail in regards to how such a spacious lab could be built so quickly for the sake of this story, but never mind.
Here are characters that don’t seem like they’ve ever had much joy in their lives. From even the earliest moments, their enthusiasm in all things is curiously muted, almost sterilized. The performances reflect that in quiet unity – most notably in Bettany, whose Max, as a principal designer of the system that will inevitably house Will’s mind, does not effectively alternate between moods, even when a group of rebel computer hackers kidnap him in hopes of persuading him to assist in their eventual revolt. Rebecca Hall, meanwhile, occupies the frame always with two constants: emotional outbursts or morose wonderment in what her “husband” is capable of on the other side of the computer screen. And Depp, who frequently rises above the constraints of conflicted screenplays with his eccentric charisma, performs as if he’s fighting an unnecessary battle here, easily succumbing to the notion that he’s caught in a shoddy portrait of a man whose intelligence also masks a lack of personality.
The movie was directed by Wally Pfister, a first time filmmaker, whose prior credits include cinematography on a handful of Christopher Nolan endeavors, including the brilliant “Inception.” The visual touches are similar, especially in large spaces; all the pieces of the image are assembled clearly and sharply, sometimes from angles that seem to dwarf the characters for the sake of underscoring the lofty ambitions of the story. But what an empty and misguided movie this is. That’s because unlike Nolan, Pfister’s direction lacks harmonious precision, and there is no effective modulation between solid photography, dimensional characters, insightful storytelling or worthy dialogue. Why? Because such resources run scarce in this screenplay, which is so sketchy with its details that it doesn’t even allow characters to explain their motives, much less their observations. There is a scene late in the movie that is ironic in this regard: in it, Evelyn begins walking down one of Will’s infinite underground hallways as if fascinated by what may be at the other end, and his image appears on an overhead screen as if to simply bring her to a screeching halt. Just imagine it – all those spacious corridors and rooms out of reach and no desire for the movie to do anything with them.
Written by DAVID KEYES
Action/Science Fiction (US); 2014; Rated PG-13 for sci-fi action and violence, some bloody images, brief strong language and sensuality; Running Time: 119 Minutes
Johnny Depp: Will Caster
Rebecca Hall: Evelyn Caster
Paul Bettany: Max Waters
Cillian Murphy: Agent Buchanan
Kate Mara: Bree
Morgan Freeman: Joseph Tager
Produced by Brad Arensman, Yolanda T. Cochran, Kate Cohen, Broderick Johnson, Andrew A. Kosove, Annie Marter, Dan Mintz, Christopher Nolan, Marisa Polvino, Regency Boies, Scott Andrew Robertson, Aaron Ryder, Emma Thomas and David Valdes; Directed by Wally Pfister; Written by Jack Paglen