TRANSCENDENCE Movie Review – The Return of Max Headroom
It’s rare for a cinematographer, even an Oscar-winning cinematographer like Wally Pfister—a winner four years ago for the Christopher Nolan-scripted and -directed Inception—to make the leap to directing feature-length films, let alone maintaining and/or sustaining a directing career. A few, like one-time Paul Verhoeven collaborator Jan de Bont, succeeded almost immediately, directing Speed and Twister to box-office success. Even de Bont, however, stumbled, directing the notoriously over-budget Speed 2 to box-office failure and a sizable dent in his reputation. He directed only two subsequent films, The Haunting and Lara Croft: The Cradle of Life eleven years ago. With Nolan serving as executive producer and Warner Bros. providing the funding, Pfister hopes to begin his directing career on a strong commercially successful note. On the evidence of Transcendence, a plodding, unfocused, shallow sci-fi action-thriller starring a virtual Johnny Depp, Pfister shouldn’t venture into directing again anytime soon.
Working from a Blacklist-approved script by first-timer Jack Paglen, Pfister opens and closes Transcendence with a wraparound scene centered not on the protagonist, Will Caster (Depp), the world’s foremost expert in artificial intelligence, or his wife (and co-protagonist), Evelyn (Rebecca Hall), but on third member of a platonic triangle, Max Waters (Paul Bettany), an A.I. scientist, researcher, and ethicist (and thus Transcendence’s moral conscience). Max introduces moviegoers to a near-future completely devoid of electronic devices, computers, or the Internet, the apparent result of catastrophic events five years ago. The wraparound scene adds little and detracts much, specifically whatever tension or suspense audiences typically invest in the outcome of the central conflict. It’s a misstep and not a minor one, indicative of the unsteady hand behind the camera (Pfister) and in front of the computer monitor (Paglen).
The events in question unfold with a marked lack of urgency, beginning with Caster’s TED-inspired talk about the present and future of A.I., a future he sees in only the most positive of terms, ushering in technological wonders and quite possibly pushing human evolution in unexpected, albeit still positive, directions. Not everyone agrees with Caster’s rosy views of technological utopia. Max has his doubts, but generally keeps them to himself. A radical, Neo-Luddite group, RIFT, led by the singularly named Bree (Kate Mara), attacks A.I. researchers and scientists around the country (and possibly Europe) moments after Caster’s talk. Caster survives the attack, only to discover he’s been poisoned by polonium, a slow-acting radioactive isotope. He has only a few weeks to live before permanent organ failure sets in.
Will’s terminal condition spurs Evelyn to preserve—or rather, attempt to preserve—Will’s personality, his thoughts, beliefs, memories, and emotions, by uploading his consciousness into an ultra-advanced neural network. Will’s physical body dies, but Will 2.0, perpetually dressed in a blue shirt, never needing a haircut or shave, survives, first inside private servers and later, when Bree’s group arrives, bent on creating more mischief, into the Internet, essentially turning Will 2.0 into a possibly malevolent software virus. He’s simultaneously everywhere and nowhere, perfectly situated to put a plan involving stock-market manipulation (even A.I.’s need cold, hard cash), purchasing a small, nondescript, desert town, and building an even more advanced server farm and research facility hundreds, if not thousands, of feet below the town.
It’s all well and good—not to mention giving Evelyn and Will 2.0 much-needed time to hang and talk—until Bree’s group, Will and Max’s old friend and mentor, Joseph Tagger (Morgan Freeman), and the resources of the FBI personified by a dogged, determined agent, Buchanan (Cillian Murphy), become involved, intent on stopping Will 2.0’s larger plan for global domination (or so they believe). Or maybe Will 2.0 isn’t an evil A.I. at all, just misunderstood (as self-aware, sentient A.I.’s are wont to be [see, e.g., 2001: A Space Odyssey, Colossus: The Forbin Project, WarGames, The Terminator, The Matrix, etc.]). The question of Will 2.0’s identity (is he/it a resurrected, if disembodied Will, an A.I. pretending to be Will, or something else entirely?). Transcendence seemingly answers that question after all the plots, sub-plots, and characters converge in the third act, but the emotion Pfister tries to wring out of the revelation falls flat, primarily because it’s unearned by everything that preceded it. You can wring emotion or a reasonable facsimile thereof unless you’ve carefully built up to that emotional revelation scene-by-scene. And that’s primarily where Transcendence stumbles and ultimately fails.