Could future technology set us free, or enslave us? This question forms the basis of more science fiction stories than we’d care to count, and it’s one that provides the core of the $100m genre thriller, Transcendence. The much-anticipated (not least by us) debut from director Wally Pfister, it’s both a star-laden Hollywood spectacle and an ambivalent meditation on the subject of artificial intelligence.
Johnny Depp stars as Dr Will Caster, a scientist who plans to make the first sentient computer. Shot and terminally injured by a member of an extremist ‘neo-Luddite’ group who want to derail any attempt to create a thinking machine, Caster’s fragile consciousness is uploaded into the virtual realm by his grief-stricken wife Evelyn (Rebecca Hall) and colleague Max (Paul Bettany).
Caster seems to survive the pioneering transition to cyberspace, yet when the doctor’s spooky digital image appears on a computer screen and asks Evelyn to plug him into the internet, Max begins to suspect that the consciousness may not be the harmless soul they once knew and loved. Evelyn remains smitten by what is both her creation and the ghost of her dead husband, while Max’s fears are shared by his mentor (Morgan Freeman) and the FBI (represented by Cillian Murphy), plus an anti-technological group’s leader, played by an unblinking Kate Mara. Like the computer consciousness in 90s techno-thriller The Lawnmower Man, the digital Caster begins to evolve at a frightening rate, first rewriting his own code and gradually working his nano-tendrils into the world around him.
Pfister gives Transcendence the modern sheen you’d expect from the cinematographer of Inception and the Dark Knight trilogy, yet the B-movie trappings are still there below the surface: screenwriter Jack Paglan’s ideas recall those found in such films as The Fly, eXistenZ (anti-technology terrorists) and Halloween III: Season Of The Witch (furtive, scientific goings-on in a remote small town).
What’s surprising about Transcendence is how flat and soap-operatic the scenes of drama are. Neither Paglan nor Pfister really get under the skin of the three central characters, robbing the first act of the sense of tragedy that could have made the rest of the film more emotionally resonant. The idea of a character’s deceased lover living on inside her iPad is an interesting one (and explored, albeit in a different way, in Charlie Brooker’s Black Mirror), yet the filmmakers leave this and other notions hanging in the air and relatively unexplored.
In the place of character insight, we have repeated and distracting shots of rain drops falling in slow motion, or flower petals unfurling in the breeze. At times, it feels as though Pfister’s isn’t so much interested in the characters as the contents of their beautifully-tended gardens.
Part of Transcendence’s problem, perhaps, is that it doesn’t settle on one effective point of view from which to tell its story. Rebecca Hall is perfectly good as the nominal lead, and the film would have been stronger, we suspect, had it remained fixed on her and the Demon Seed-like relationship with the increasingly powerful Caster, who gradually amasses an army of acolytes like an Apple-designed deity. Instead, it keeps cutting to Paul Bettany’s character, who’s gradually converted to Kate Mara’s cause, or Cillian Murphy and Morgan Freeman, who spend several scenes sitting in offices and pontificating about the power of computers.
At two hours, Transcendence plods far more than it should for a film with so much going on in it. Even when battle lines are drawn and guns are loaded for the second half, something fails to click; the standard-issue Hollywood explosions carry little weight, and the action in general feels too by-the-numbers to truly satisfy.
Transcendence’s real potential lies in the relationship between Evelyn and the doctor’s digital ghost, and there are a handful of scenes where the tragic impact of their situation hits home. Had Transcendence focused more on these moments, perhaps sacrificing more of its scale for a greater degree of intimacy, the resulting film could have been more affecting. Instead, it falls between two stalls, since it lacks the trashy entertainment of a good B-movie, but also fails to bring the pathos and richness required of a satisfying drama. Lines like “Are you analysing my hormones?” also conspire to rob the film of the gravitas it appears to be striving for.
In its favour, Transcendence dares to explore some weighty, thought-provoking themes in the context of an expensive multiplex film, and Pfister demonstrates his talent for arresting visuals in a few late, effects-heavy moments. How disappointing, then, that the best ideas in Transcendence never quite cohere, or worse, are repeatedly cast aside in favour of bewildering character choices and tepid action.
Transcendence is out in UK cinemas on the 25th April.
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