Denerstein: ‘Transcendence’ is a muddle


[dropcap]I[/dropcap] don’t know exactly what’s in the hearts and minds of director Wally Pfister and screenwriter Jack Paglen when it comes to the perils humanity faces as mankind inches closer to a time when artificial intelligence threatens to undermine the biological basis of life.

And that’s the trouble.

I should have left Transcendence, which purports to deal with just that subject, feeling a sense of outrage — or at least brooding concern. I’d gladly have settled for glimmers of hope that we’ll come to our senses and cling to the flesh-and-blood quality of our lives.

Instead, I left wondering what the hell Pfister was trying to say and whether too much A-line pap has diminished Johnny Depp as an actor.

I also wondered whether whether Pfister, an excellent cinematographer who has worked on almost all of director Christopher Nolan‘s movies (e.g., The Dark Knight and Inception) forgot that the main job of the director has less to do with cinematic flourishes (of whichTranscendence boasts many) than with with storytelling.

The longer Transcendence goes on, the more it feels as if the story hadn’t been thought through or perhaps had been tinkered with by a committee. Don’t you think we need a love story? How about adding hybrids? No, not cars, but zombie-like folks ready to form an automoton-like army.

Depp plays Will Caster, a brilliant computer scientist whose work in the field of artificial intelligence has established him as a global genius. Caster’s wife, Evelyn (Rebecca Hall), runs the business side of Will’s life, raising money for his work in league with Max Waters (Paul Bettany), another computer scientist.

Early on, Will is attacked by a radical anti-technology group called RIFT. He survives a gunshot wound only to learn that he was struck by a radioactive bullet.

With death looming, Hall and Bettany contrive to salvage Will’s consciousness by uploading it into a giant computer. They succeed, and the trouble starts.

Will’s humanitarian impulses become distorted. With all the world’s information at his disposal through the Internet, he becomes power hungry — for the good of mankind, he says.

Depp doesn’t inhabit a computer as well as Scarlett Johansson did inHer. (A better title for Transcendence might have been Him.)

And the supporting cast is largely wasted.

Hall does what she can as a woman whose ideals increasingly are betrayed. Bettany brings hand-wringing sincerity to his role, but the rest of the cast — Morgan Freeman (as a scientist), Cillian Murphy(as an FBI agent) and a grim looking Kate Mara (as a RIFT activist) is largely wasted.

It’s depressing to watch an actor as gifted as Freeman playing a non-character in a sea of non-characters.

Maybe that’s the rub: A movie that wants to remind us of our connection to the Earth and of our precious humanity might have made more of an effort to include a few interesting human beings.

[ Read more Denerstein at his blog. ]


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