While there are many moments in which I was hoping to transcend the experience of screening TRANSCENDENCE, long after the credits rolled and I had left the theater, this freshman directorial effort by award-winning cinematographer Wally Pfister would not leave by thoughts. Screenwriter Jack Paglen tackles thematic issues of morality and mortality, humanity, ethical responsibilities, artificial intelligence, sentient beings, self-awareness, reasoning and in a large sense, taking the “God particle” to the level of intelligent singularity, not only fascinate, but compel discussion. TRANSCENDENCE will have you asking the questions, “How far is too far? Is one man, one machine, destined to become God on earth? Is the fantasy of a “Star Trek” Borg collective within the realm of factual possibility? Or is the idea of an android seeking his humanity our destiny? Where does man end and machine begin? But, is that enough for the film?
The issue of singularity - uploading the human brain into a computer, duplicating every synapse, proton, neuron, thought, idea, every iota of knowledge known to man - has long been a fascination in film. Often with a fantasy or horror bent to it, the idea has often seemed preposterous until now. Paglen and Pfister have grounded TRANSCENDENCE within the modern world and everyday reality, with everyday (albeit brilliant) people, capitalizing on not only the beauty of Mother Nature but the stark clinical futuristic nature of science and technology, contrasted and infused with saturation of color and human emotion. So rooted in “the now”, Paglen and Pfister brings TRANSCENDENCE right to our front door - the good, the bad and the terror of it all; unfortunately, the humanity of it all doesn’t quite make it through that door.
Leading the field of Artificial Intelligence is Dr. Will Caster. Joined by his equally talented researcher wife, Evelyn, and best friend neurobiologist Max Waters, the three have made leaps and bounds with their research, most notably with Caster’s pride and joy - PINN, a sentient computer which he believes has the capability to one day possess the collective intelligence of every person who has ever lived on Earth. A lofty ideology, Caster’s work - and that of others inspired by him - has awakened anti-technology “terrorist cells” across the country via a group called RIFT, a group that will stop at nothing to prevent the furtherance of TRANSCENDENCE.
Attacking technology labs which RIFT has methodically infiltrated, all research is destroyed but for one - PINN. But with their attacks, RIFT does the unthinkable as they gun down Caster with a polonium infused bullet giving him mere weeks to live. Not wanting to abandon his research and fervently believing in his research and the idea of TRANSCENDENCE, and with Evelyn not wanting to lose Will, they hatch an even greater plan, upload and meld Will’s brain with PINN. Although ethical considerations of “should they do this” are briefly considered via Max Waters, who assists Evelyn and Will in the endeavor, the three go ahead with the unthinkable. But is their creation Will? Or an omnipresent, power-hungry, self-made God out to control the universe? Just how far will Evelyn and Max with Will’s TRANSCENDENCE. Just how far will mankind let them go.
For Bree, leader of RIFT, Max is the key to stopping Will’s TRANSCENDENCE. An avid student of Waters’ philosophies, she sees the possibility of mankind’s salvation through him. Kidnapped and eventually convinced of the correctness of RIFT’s position (of course, during the apparent many years since his kidnapping there is nary a mention that this brilliant scientist is missing), Waters becomes not only a tool for RIFT, but the go-between who must convince the FBI, the government and his own mentor, the sage and pragmatic Professor Tagger, of the truth and gravity of the situation at hand. He must also serve as the link to Evelyn and Will, as well as reappear in Evelyn’s life, a life which now consists of a bunker-like existence in the middle of the desert helmed by a transcendent Will who knows all, sees all, commands all as in a Borg collective, while moving ever closer to his own ultimate goal. (This situation also gives rise to yet another story hole with an above ground solar panel array that stretches for miles in the middle of nowhere and yet no one notices?) The question now becomes has Evelyn’s own obsession and love for Will blinded her? Has she lost her own moral compass? Did she ever have one?
As Will Caster, Johnny Depp is at his robotic monotone best, exhibiting an almost sardonic presence while his vocal elocution sounds like a cross between the Dick Tracy villain “Mumbles” and a drunken Jack Sparrow. With all of the advancements in technology within the world of Will Caster, one would think speech elocution and articulation would be as advanced as everything else, not to mention the fact that scientists, by their very nature articulate well when they speak. Distracting to say the least.
Rebecca Hall falls short, completely lacking in chemistry with Depp, yet she brings a facial conviction metaphoric to Evelyn’s obsessive determination, making the character resonate for the bulk of the film. Unfortunately, Hall pushes the grim mugging and clenched fists too hard and loses any palpable empathy.
But all is not lost with performances thanks to Kate Mara and Paul Bettany. Mara is simply stand-out. As Bree, she creates and maintains a stare-own creepy vibe that when set against an over bleached, split-end hair job, begs the question of Bree’s own sanity and moral compass. With Mara, however, less is always more and the tacit performance fueled by ocular expressiveness that cuts through you with rapier precision is captivating, hypnotic even.
When it comes to Bettany, he sets the tone as storyteller, opening the film with narration and going back five years to the beginning of the end, but narrates with a soft and tender note differentiating from the character of Max himself within the context of the story. Bettany brings a warmth and truth to Max Waters that mirrors the internal conflict of mankind as a whole; we see the internal debate of reason and awareness. We welcome it.
Particularly effective are Morgan Freeman and Clifton Collins, Jr. Freeman, as researcher and government liaison Joseph Tagger is truly the voice of reason, providing rationale and commentary on each thematic element presented within the film. We hear the “pros and cons” through Freeman’s strong, yet comforting and expressive, voice. Clifton Collins, Jr. blows my mind with his performance. As local contractor Martin, Collins delivers the duality of being Martin, an honest man working for an honest dollar and helming the Caster project in the desert, but then presents with the mannerisms and emotional pacing of Johnny Depp’s Will. It’s a fascinating balancing act to watch and never moreso than when Martin is “saved” by the transcendent Will.
It comes as no surprise with Wally Pfister at the helm that the visuals of TRANSCENDENCE are outstanding. Bringing his own cinematographic experience to the table, Pfister and his cinematographer Jess Hall, shoot on film for a more tactile fingerprint. Visually key is that Pfister knows light, he knows color, he knows framing, he knows staging and he knows how to use it all to tell a story. Capturing the beauty of Mother Nature in a sunlit garden or the grey shadows of rain-heavy clouds over the desert, Pfister and Hall continually remind us of earth, nature, humanity. Judicially implementing color saturation, our subconscious is touched with the surreal nature and falsity of the seemingly comfortable world created by TRANSCENDENCE. The yellows are too yellow, the blues too blue, the clinical white on white too sterile. There is great visual distinction within the lensing and production design creating a continual discussion of “Is it live or is it Memorex?”. Special effects are beautifully rendered, again in an almost ethereal contract between humanity and technology. There is no arguing that the core thematic base of TRANSCENDENCE is enunciated on every level.
But where there is argument is within the script as a whole. There is no doubt that the material is high-minded, lofty and designed to spark discussion and debate. And that’s a good thing. But perhaps there are just too many themes, too many ideologies touched on but not fleshed out, thereby clouding the picture, blurring the lines as to freshman scribe Paglen’s true intent. While he puts it all out there, perhaps the kitchen sink should be less crowded than it is to afford the audience, and the film, more clarity of choice. Discouraging is that the story package as a whole feels like a cut and paste, pulling strong elements from Asimov, Zal Batmanglij’s eco-terrorist film “The East”, Spielberg’s “A.I.”, decades of themes from “Star Trek”, Kubrick’s “2001: A Space Odyssey” and then tossing in modern day technology and scientific advancement in light of Higgs-Boson and ongoing sentient robotic studies like HRP, MSRS, and the work of Walter Freeman. Where true non-sequitur plays especially heavy is with the idea of polonium poisoning and imminent death. Well-documented research belies what we see on screen. Adding insult to injury, tv’s favorite soap opera, “General Hospital” recently had a lengthy storyline involving polonium poisoning, which incorporated some actual research and delivered a happy ending. Crossover audiences to the film TRANSCENDENCE may find themselves saying, “Hey. Luke Spencer lived. Why not Will Caster.”
A disconnect also occurs within the story’s timeline as we don’t feel the passage of time. Everything feels immediate, surreal, a fantasy. But for Bettany’s Max growing a beard after being kidnapped, there is no sense of temporal movement.
As a director, Wally Pfister does what he does best. He delivers intriguing visuals that tell a story. As a screenwriter, Jack Paglen creates opportunities for discussion that are welcome in this day and age. Sadly, however, there are too many themes and not enough clarity to engage during the film itself, a failure that also falls on the lack of a human touch within two of the film’s principals - Depp and Hall.
Directed by Wally Pfister
Written by Jack Paglen
Cast: Johnny Depp, Rebecca Hall, Paul Bettany, Morgan Freeman, Clifton Collins Jr.