Silver Screen: Transcendence *1/2
If Johnny Depp played a computer, you’d expect the computer to wear a funny hat or have a ferret draped over its shoulder, or at the very least have some eyeliner scribbled onto the screen. But that’s not the case, as we learn in Transcendence. When Johnny Depp is transformed into a computer, it turns out he’s just a humorless dick.
If Transcendence were either much better-executed or just a little bit worse, it could have been entertaining. Instead its combination of silliness and self-seriousness renders it grim and semi-coherent.
Before being transformed into Max Headroom’s somber, philosophy-major cousin, Will Castor (Depp) is a wonky computer scientist married to smoking-hot, even smarter computer scientist Evelyn (Rebecca Hall). The two most devastatingly attractive scientists in America are working in collaboration with a handful of other labs to create artificial intelligence that will bring about the singularity, or what Will calls “transcendence” because it’s a better movie title than Singularity, which sounds like an MTV reality dating show.
A group of somehow-even-more-self-serious Luddite terrorists stage simultaneous attacks on Will and his fellow tech pioneers, although they leave Evelyn alone because she’s a girl and girls probably can’t do the science anyway, just like driving or peeing standing up or being president. Will’s mentor Joseph (Morgan Freeman) narrowly escapes the plot, although Will is mortally wounded with a radiation-laced bullet. As his health rapidly deteriorates, he and Evelyn, in collaboration with their best science pal Max (Paul Bettany), devise a way to upload his consciousness into a computer to bridge the gap between human and artificial intelligence.
With his mind free of biological limitations, Will quickly evolves into a kind of digital demigod who has mind-melded with the internet and can control all things electronic. He buys a small desert town that he transforms into a headquarters/supercomputing center where he can work on new inventions and innovations while creating an army of mentally linked supersoldiers, none of which seems to alarm Evelyn. Max, however, is disturbed and eventually joins forces with the antitech terrorists to stop Will before he remakes the world in his own image.
Transcendence is the directorial debut of Wally Pfister, Christopher Nolan’s preferred cinematographer. At a glance Transcendence seems like Nolan’s kind of movie: a straight-faced genre picture focused on bringing internal verisimilitude to big, fantastical ideas. But Transcendence lacks Nolan’s facility for puzzle-box plotting and grandiose popcorn-movie spectacle. Nolan seems to lack a sense of humor, but his movies might as well be Jackass sequels compared to Pfister’s grim slog, in which— as is so often the case— solemnity is mistaken for intelligence.
It is a handsome movie. The production is so slick that for the first half-hour or so it perseveres on presentation alone, like a terrible employee whose ineptitude is masked by spiffy attire and good manners. But as Transcendence’s clunkiness gives way to sustained awfulness, its polished aesthetic only serves to highlight how bad every other element of the movie is. These are the potential consequences of giving an entire film over to a cinematographer. Simple shots of Depp walking down a hallway or the glimmer of headlights through a rainy windshield are composed with the utmost care, yet the mechanics of the story and the holes in Jack Paglan’s script go unaddressed. A critical plot point involving rainwater becomes an excuse for endless shots of droplets of water tumbling through the air and rolling down leaves like hydro-porn. Is this elaborate product placement for Dasani?
Real-life computer scientists, who might in fact be slightly less-ravishing than Depp and Hall, are working on creating a computer that can make and understand jokes. The point of the experiment is not to replace all sitcom writers with their laptops; these scientists believe that the kind of abstract, paralogical thinking necessary to process humor is one of the most essential and difficult-to-replicate trait in human intelligence. Maybe after they perfect that they can teach Jack Paglen and Wally Pfister.
Follow Bryan Miller on Twitter@bmillercomedy.