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If Joe Johnston’s Captain America: The First Avenger basically delivers a Steven Spielberg movie that lacks Spielberg’s unique spark, then Wally Pfister’s Transcendence does the same for Christopher Nolan. Nevertheless far smarter and more sophisticated than the sort of Lawnmower Man/Ghost in the Machine mashup the film’s marketing suggests, Pfister’s directorial debut is all polish and respectability without any of his mentor’s effortless crowd-pleasing.
Transcendence is alternately thoughtful and theatrical in too many of the wrong places, as its tale of artificial intelligence gone wrong offers an intriguing, cerebral thriller that lacks the necessary jolt of energy to make it fully compelling.
Johnny Depp plays Will Caster, a pioneer in the field of A.I. who’s shot by a member of a radical anti-technology organization on the day he presents his ideas to the public. After discovering the bullet was laced with radiation that will inevitably kill him, Will abandons his work to devote his final weeks to his wife Evelyn (Rebecca Hall). But she’s determined to keep him alive, in any way possible, and enlists Will’s best friend Max (Paul Bettany) to help her find a way to preserve his life and work through the technology that he himself invented.
Despite the efforts of Bree (Kate Mara) and her Luddite terrorists, Evelyn is successful, and she soon finds a remote patch of land where she and Will rebuild his lab for the purposes of completing – and even expanding – his research. But as time passes and Will’s artificial sentience evolves, Evelyn begins to question just how much of her husband still remains in the computer’s programming, even as Will’s efforts to manipulate the financial markets and otherwise infiltrate international systems draws the attention of his former colleague Joseph (Morgan Freeman) and FBI agent Buchanan (Cillian Murphy).
Although Pfister is an undeniably gifted technician, he doesn’t yet possess – or at least doesn’t demonstrate – as strong an aptitude for storytelling, not to mention maintaining consistent dramatic pitch. During the early scenes involving Will and Evelyn, and indeed the majority of their relationship, Pfister approaches the material with sensitivity and subtlety, gently transforming the film’s technological concepts into strong metaphors for the unwanted end of a relationship, and the emotional complexities of letting go, or not letting go, of a loved one. But he contrasts this with a portrait of the terrorists as petulant, obnoxious collegiate activists, and never quite supplies them with the necessary gravitas to make their violent tactics understandable, much less justified.
It’s hard to decide whether the material needs less camp, or more, but as is, the story is flat and possesses little momentum. Will’s absorption – his transcendence – into the machine makes for a wealth of interesting ideas, but few of them are explored interestingly. Years pass before Evelyn starts to question whether the intelligence in the computer is actually her husband, and only when Will’s colleague Joseph warns her that it’s dangerous. The sort of bummer is that it isn’t dangerous, or at least it never seems to evolve into something genuinely problematic, for the purposes of compelling storytelling. Is it tragic that she has pinned all of her feelings to the seeming life of a computer mainframe in order to bypass the grief of losing her husband? Absolutely. But the movie’s resistance to amplifying the stakes, or escalating the danger beyond “we’re all pretty sure that’s not Will,” makes for decidedly dry entertainment.
Moreover, the film seems to struggle with connecting one scene to the next – too many exchanges just sort of end, or people walk away, without resolution or closure. And given the film’s multi-year time frame, there are also numerous logistical question, not the least of them whether the authorities are actively looking for Will’s friend Max, who is kidnapped by the terrorists without anyone ever seeming particularly concerned about his disappearance.
Given the film’s meditation on the impact of technology and the general seriousness of the themes, I’m not sure whether it’s ironic or appropriate that Transcendence lacks humanity. But it seems like no matter how noble a scientist’s ambitions, or how determined a wife is to preserve her husband’s memory, surely they would have a conversation every now and again that was just about connecting, on a personal level, to someone they cared about, right?
Overall, Transcendence lacks anything truly identifiable or resonant, which is why Pfister’s film remains impressively ambitious, but underwhelmingly ordinary – a thriller that, through its determination to be smart and sophisticated, ultimately fails to thrill.
Transcendence opens today nationwide.