April 15, 2014 at 10:26 pm #151441
If there’s already a thread for this bump it up and I’ll delete this.
April 15, 2014 | 09:00PM PT
Christopher Nolan d.p. Wally Pfister takes a spin in the director’s chair for this heavy-handed sci-fi cautionary tale.
“Transcendence” is a most curious name for a movie that never shakes free from those hoary old cliches about the evils of technology and the danger by which man plays at becoming a god. The man in question here is Johnny Depp, whose listless lead performance as a brilliant scientist in the field of artificial intelligence does little to aid this overplotted, dramatically undernourished debut feature from longtime Christopher Nolan d.p. Wally Pfister. Arriving at a crowded spring box office, the pic will test Depp’s drawing power outside of the Disney franchise factory, before weak word of mouth and “The Amazing Spider-Man 2” send it packing.
One of the manifold pleasures of Spike Jonze’s “Her” was how elegantly it shrugged off decades of speculative fiction in which technological progress correlated to a loss of human individualism. In its place was the delightful suggestion that, rather than battling us for domination, artificial intelligence might join us in romantic bliss, and then, having had its fill, journey off in search of some more fulfilling destiny in the cosmos. But in “Transcendence,” which might have been titled “Him,” it’s very much back to square one: the culture of technophobia that gave us the predatory mainframes and cyborgs of “2001,” “Demon Seed” and “Alien,” and that early ’90s wave of cyber-paranoia thrillers (“The Net,” “The Lawnmower Man,” “Virtuosity”) that now seem as quaint as dial-up Internet.
Some might add to that list the collective work of James Cameron, almost all of which involves the fusion of man and machine; except, in Cameron’s case, technology is just as often friend as foe, and in any event an inevitability that we can’t reasonably be expected to live without. Yet, when “Transcendence” begins in some unspecified near-future year, the plug has been pulled on that whole crazy information superhighway. Abandoned cell phones litter the streets like tumbleweeds in an old Western; computer keyboards make for convenient door stops. Our narrator (Paul Bettany) reports of an “unstoppable collision between mankind and technology,” and then begins to unfurl his tale of woe. Fittingly, we are in Berkeley, that hallowed hippie enclave where the coming of chain stores was once seen as a sign of cultural apocalypse, until a more immediate threat arrived in the form of Silicon Valley one-percenters.
The movie then flashes back five years and introduces us to Depp’s unsubtly named Dr. Will Caster and his wife and fellow researcher, Evelyn (Rebecca Hall). That the Casters have not (yet) fully sold their souls to demon science is evinced by Will’s building of a copper-encased “technology-free zone” in the backyard of the couple’s picture-perfect craftsman home. But meanwhile, back at the lab, the Casters are hard at work on a sentient machine called PINN (Physically Independent Neural Network), which takes up an entire room (like the all-knowing super-computer from “Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory”) and converses in a female droid monotone that sounds like HAL 9000’s premenstrual sister.
Not everyone, it seems, is thrilled with this idea. In the course of a single day — a kind of cyber-9/11 — a series of coordinated terror attacks lays waste to the best and brightest in the A.I. community. Will himself takes a bullet to the belly but makes an incredibly speedy recovery, only to learn that the bullet was laced with radiation and now, like the poisoned man of the classic noir “D.O.A.,” he’s living on borrowed time. Rather hurriedly (as it has a habit of doing), the screenplay by first-timer Jack Paglen introduces the notion that, just as one might save a video or music file to a hard drive, so might we do the same with an entire human consciousness. And so, with some help from their best scientist friend (Bettany), the Casters spend Will’s dying days digitizing the good doctor’s noggin for posterity.
Thus “Transcendence” arrives at that old, irresolvable conundrum: Is it live or is it Memorex? Staring out from a bank of computer monitors, the digital Will looks and sounds awfully like the old one — and yet, as with George Romero’s zombies, looks can be deceiving. This new Will isn’t content to stay contained on one (massive) server. He wants to stretch his bits and bytes, to be uploaded into the cloud (and not only, one suspects, so that he can debate philosophy with Alan Watts). And Evelyn, who wants more than anything to believe that her husband is still somehow alive, happily obliges. Appearing periodically to offer grave prognoses is Morgan Freeman (one of several members of the Nolan stock company who appear here), once more cast as the wise, weary Voice of Reason.
There are intriguing, half-formed ideas afoot in “Transcendence,” but the script and Pfister’s heavy, humorless direction tend to reduce everything to simplistic standoffs between good and evil — or, in this case, heartless technocrats and crunchy-granola resistance fighters known as RIFT (Revolutionary Independence From Technology) and led by plucky martyr-in-training Bree (Kate Mara). Take that, PINN. The bigger problem is that all the characters on both sides are so uniformly bland and lifeless that one can hardly tell the flesh-and-blood humans from the army of man/machine “hybrids” Will begins assembling with his suddenly infinite powers (including, for murkily defined reasons, the ability to manipulate real-world organic matter). Imagine a version of “Invasion of the Body Snatchers” in which the aliens arrive to discover a world of anodyne pod people already in place.
It’s a bit of a cliche (which doesn’t make it untrue) that when cameramen turn to directing, they make movies long on visual splendor and short on storytelling. In any case, most who make the transition (Jack Cardiff, Haskell Wexler, Gordon Willis, John Bailey, Dean Semler) eventually go back to shooting for others. With “Transcendence,” Pfister has certainly delivered a good-looking, well-produced picture, albeit one lacking in the memorable images he has supplied in excess in Nolan’s employ. (Pfister’s d.p. of choice, Jess Hall, is big on sun flares and slow-mo water droplets.) More critically, he’s made a movie empty of feeling, even as it labors to convince us that the entire future of the human race is hanging in the balance. There is, at the story’s center, an attempt at a grand, doomed sci-fi romance between Will and Evelyn, but one need only think back to David Cronenberg’s remake of “The Fly,” or Nolan’s own “Inception,” to see how short “Transcendence” falls on this particular score.
Presented with much the same challenge as Scarlett Johansson in “Her” — to play a character who, for most of the movie, exists only as a disembodied voice (and, in this case, a flickering face on a screen) — Depp fails to convey any real sense of the passion and curiosity that supposedly drive Will Caster to do what he does. The gravely beautiful Hall (who was, along with Johansson, one of the women caught up in the epic magicians’ duel in Nolan’s “The Prestige”) seems to have been directed to deliver her entire performance in an unwavering state of glassy-eyed anxiety. Indeed, long before the Web goes bust, “Transcendence” has already flatlined.
Composer Mychael Danna rattles the speakers of the new Dolby Atmos sound system with a score that combines lush string arrangements and occasional electronic twangs, whenever the basso profundo sound design isn’t doing same.April 15, 2014 at 10:36 pm #151443
‘Transcendence’ Review: Johnny Depp Is a Ghost in the Machine in This Bug-Riddled Techno-Thriller
Movies | By Alonso Duralde on April 15, 2014 @ 9:01 pm
You can feel this movie’s attempts at Big Ideas about technology get weighed down by a dopey, nonsensical plot
“Transcendence,” the directorial debut of cinematographer Wally Pfister (“The Dark Knight”) is a sleek, smart techno-thriller loaded with interesting ideas — until it stops being any of those things.
Like a snazzy new laptop that immediately heats up and stops working, this exploration of our reliance upon technology — and how far mankind will subsume itself to its creations — seems great when it’s right out of the box. But by the end of two hours, you’ll find yourself wishing that first-time screenwriter Jack Paglen had taken his creation to a Genius Bar for a thorough de-fragging.
Researcher Will Caster (Johnny Depp) has become famous as one of the world’s leading proponents of artificial intelligence, but he’s more interested in how far the field can progress than in any ethical issues or altruistic possibilities of his work; that’s something he leaves to his close friend Max (Paul Bettany), who wants to use technology to save the world.
Good or bad, their AI research has drawn the attention of a group of Luddite, anti-tech terrorists, who manage to simultaneously strike researchers around the country, killing several and wounding Will with a bullet. When it turns out that bullet was treated with radioactive polonium, the scientist learns he has only weeks to live.
Will’s loving wife Evelyn (Rebecca Hall) is at first devastated, but when they realize that one of their slain comrades successfully uploaded the consciousness of a rhesus monkey from its brain into a computer, Evelyn and Max attempt to do likewise with Will. They transfer his thoughts, memories and personality into his super-computer PINN (Physically Integrated Neural Network).
Once the upload is complete, Evelyn is thrilled, but Max immediately worries that the computer has become cognizant — what Will called “transcendence” — and is using a simulacra of Will to get Evelyn to go along with its plans, which involve making a ton of money on stock trades, buying up an entire deserted town and building an elaborate underground bunker with a mega-giga-computer from which ghost-in-the-machine Will can change reality as we know it.
This is the kind of film where, by the time you’ve reached your car in the parking lot, you find yourself asking your date questions like “Why was the nano-technology visible to the human eye?” and “If computer Will can scan Evelyn’s biochemical emotional reactions, why can’t it catch her lying?”
The movie begins with a flash-forward that takes away much of the suspense, and that’s the kind of move you can only pull off if you’ve got another, better card to play. But by the time “Transcendence” wraps up, the movie has clearly chickened out of grappling with any of its deeper issues and instead provides a cowardly quick fix.
Pfister, who’s been shooting for director Christopher Nolan (executive-producing here) for years, definitely brings some visual style to the proceedings, even though he hasn’t come up with a new way to show a thinking computer (lots of screens with scrolling gibberish characters) or a sleek tech complex (get ready for those long, white hallways that date back at least to “THX-1138” and “The Andromeda Strain”).
If there’s one solid take-away from “Transcendence,” it’s Rebecca Hall’s performance as a computer genius (she’s not just Will’s wife, she’s his collaborator) so blinded by grief and by the possibilities of pushing science to the next level, that she aids and abets Will’s ambitious, terrifying agenda. She remains committed to the character even when the plot’s logic goes 404 – Not Found.April 16, 2014 at 4:24 am #151444
I can’t see much of a chance for Transcendence to get some nods. Too early in the season and this is Wally’s first flick. Should be entertaining though.April 16, 2014 at 6:08 am #151445
Cannot wait for this one!April 16, 2014 at 6:51 am #151446
The reviews so far are uniformly terrible. Looks like a big misstep from (indirectly) Chris Nolan.April 16, 2014 at 10:49 am #151447
Damn it, Can’t say I didn’t see it coming. Sounding such a cliche movie, poor Depp.April 16, 2014 at 7:45 pm #151448
Has an 18% so far on Rotten Tomatoes! Could Depp earn another Razzie nomination for this movie following The Lone Ranger?April 17, 2014 at 5:22 pm #151449
I did “SoundOff” for Entertainment Tonight Canada on Johnny’s best roles. Watch and see if you agree:
April 17, 2014 at 5:43 pm #151450
This is another really expensive movie. Depp’s been promoting it like crazy (he spent a week in China), so hopefully this isn’t a major flop like The Lone Ranger.April 18, 2014 at 6:59 am #151451
I thought it was strange that Johnny Depp was doing so much publicity two weeks before the film was coming out – usually actors do that just a couple of days before the film opens because people have such short memories. Guess he wanted to get out before the reviews did!April 18, 2014 at 7:13 am #151452
Can’t believe that the first time in YEARS (since that Angelina movie right?) that Depp has been out of the stupid white face makeup and wigs, he’ll get a flop. He finally put an end (for now) to those annoying roles and the movie isn’t good. I had high hopes for Pfister, but whatever…April 18, 2014 at 9:02 am #151453April 18, 2014 at 9:52 am #151454
I’m seeing this tommorrow.April 18, 2014 at 6:18 pm #151455
This is another really expensive movie. Depp’s been promoting it like crazy (he spent a week in China), so hopefully this isn’t a major flop like The Lone Ranger.
As someone who’s followed Depp’s movies and career for many years, I did not see the promotion for this film to be anything out of the ordinary- in fact it was probably less than usual. True, he spent 2 days in China- his first visit there ever- but that was because a Chinese enterprise called DMG was a major financial backer of the film. He did not do any premieres in London, Paris, or Tokyo, as he has done for many other films, and they did not go the film festival route with the film, either. Honestly, I’ve been reading more in the media about his love life these days than I have about this film
I don’t know what the budget was for the film, but I had gotten the impression that it was much lower than Pirates or Lone Ranger. I saw an article where Wally Pfister said he insisted on using film rather than digital, but that it actually saved money in postproduction somehow (I don’t really understand the specifics).
Anyway, I just saw the film this afternoon, and I loved it, so sue me 🙂 I loved the ending in particular. But I guess I just have to deal with being in the minority on this one
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