Jack Paglen is the sole credited writer of “Transcendence,” the new science-fiction film starring Johnny Depp, and if he really is the man responsible for the script, then it scares me to learn that he's been hired to write the big-screen “Battlestar Galactica” reboot.
One of the truths of science-fiction is that anytime we as a culture try to get our heads around a jump forward in technology, one of the ways we do that is by imagining the very worst case scenario, so it should come as no surprise that as we discuss ideas about The Singularity and trans-humanism, “Transcendence” arrives to serve as this decade's “Lawnmower Man,” a deeply stupid movie that uses smart ideas as a springboard but without any real sense of what they're talking about. Wally Pfister, best known until now as the cinematographer on Christopher Nolan's big films, makes his directorial debut here, and as dumb as Paglen's script is, Pfister seems to have no feeling whatsoever for the staging of sequences or for any sort of dramatic narrative momentum. Make no mistake… “Transcendence” is a stiff, but one that is produced with enough polish that it almost successfully disguises its true nature.
From the very start of the film, it is obvious that whatever experiment Will Caster (Johnny Depp) and his wife Evelyn (Rebecca Hall) were part of, it led to the end of the world as we know it. Max Waters (Paul Bettany) is the main character in the movie, a close friend of the Casters, and we meet him in a world where there is no electricity, no computer technology, and very little hope. He speaks in voice-over about how it all began, and the entire film plays out as a flashback, robbing us of whatever small dramatic tension there might have been.
It turns out that Will and Evelyn were working on the front lines of artificial intelligence. Will is one of those rock star scientists who only ever seem to exist in movies, good-looking and on the cover of every magazine, giving lectures that seem to be ridiculously simplistic. There's an early sequence where both Will and Evelyn address a room full of what I presume are supposed to be their scientific peers, but the ideas they express and the language they use to express them are so basic that if it were an actual event, they'd be politely laughed off the stage.
There are a series of terrorist attacks against labs all over the country, and at the same time, a young man steps out of a crowd and shoots Will in the stomach before killing himself. While Will survives the initial attack, they learn that he's been poisoned by radiation, and it's irreversible. He is going to die, and there's nothing they can do about it. That's when Evelyn, desperate to save her husband, comes up with the idea of using the artificial intelligence they've built as a sort of external hard drive that they'll upload Will into, guaranteeing that his mind will live on even if his body can't.
There's a weird energy to the film, and every time we cut to the inner workings of the terrorist group, it gets eye-rollingly dumb right away. I get that not everyone is going to want to see a merging of the technological and the biological, but the truth is the process has already begun. If you told people they could get a chip implanted into their head that would allow them to access everything they can currently do with their smart phones, but without having to press any buttons at all, most people would happily make that jump. We see more and more examples now of ways that technology is doing things for people that would have seemed miraculous only 20 years ago, whether it is the restoration of damaged senses or the use of artificial limbs or even just the basics of communication with the outside world. We live in an age of non-stop wonders, and we have come to see them as commonplace.
But in the world of “Transcendence,” the science in the science-fiction quickly reaches the breaking point, and not only do they successfully upload Will to the computers, but he begins to evolve as soon as he is free of his body. Max becomes concerned right away, sure that this is a bad thing, but Evelyn believes that Will is going to usher in a new and better age for mankind. Do you see where this is headed, because once things start moving along that narrative path, there's not another surprise in the film. And of course, Will can't help but turn into an evil super-being who wants to take over all of humanity, and Max can't help but turn to the terrorists for help, convinced that he has to stop his old friend.
johnny Depp looks powerfully bored in every single moment he's onscreen, and Rebecca Hall has an unfortunate role. She has to play most of the film against a viewscreen where a digital Depp talks to her. For a little while, she is happy with the breakthroughs they're making, and they build an amazing facility in the desert below a nothing town in the middle of nowhere. The more powerful Will gets, the more ridiculous the film becomes. Right around the time he cures all disease and also figures out how to take over every human he helps by networking all of them to his control, the film shifts from silly to aggressively unpleasant. It's sort of amazing that the same studio that released “Her,” easily one of the most subtle and human science-fiction films in recent memory, would also end up releasing a movie that argues that the only possible outcome to these events would be a silly Frankenstein monster with Jesus powers making an army of cyber-zombies to do his bidding.
The film is handsomely made for the most part, but considering how big the story they're trying to tell is, there's something sort of low-rent about the way they actually imagined it. For all of the world significance that these events supposedly carry, everything seems to happen between a few characters in one of the blandest settings imaginable. The big climax to the film boils down to a couple of characters standing around in a solar panel farm arguing while things blow up. I feel bad for the cast. Rebecca Hall tries to give some sense of inner life to a character that exists mainly to react to expository dialogue dumps, but it's a battle she can't win. Bettany doesn't fare much better, and poor Kate Mara is stranded as the leader of the terrorist group. She has to glower a lot and snarl a few speeches, but it's a terrible role, and she's unable to make it work.
More than anything, I find this kind of film dispiriting. Science-fiction is an amazing genre. Our greatest authors have used it to look forward and imagine all the ways that we as a species might flourish and evolve, while this sort of thing falls closer to the people who believe that evolution is a lie and cavemen rode around on dinosaurs, scared to death that science might offer answers that simple faith cannot. This is a movie that is terrified of the future, and it seizes on all the worst possible versions of the ideas that it attempts to discuss. “Transcendence” implies something wonderful, some moment where we become something else, but as a film, this is resolutely grounded, afraid to fly, and it offers up the most pedestrian, familiar version of a story that deserves better.
“Transcendence” opens in theaters everywhere on Friday.