Transcendence Gives Up the Ghost in the Machine

<i>Transcendence</i> Gives Up the Ghost in the Machine
Photo by Peter Mountain - © 2013 Alcon Entertainment, LLC. All Rights Reserved
Johnny Depp

Sometimes it's helpful to know certain details about how a film has come together. And sometimes it's just so much information. Transcendence, the directorial debut of Christopher Nolan's go-to cinematographer, Wally Pfister, was shot on film rather than digitally, as most big Hollywood movies (and nearly all small ones) are today. Is that going to make you like it better than you might otherwise? That depends on your tolerance for quasi-cerebral cautionary tales about our dependence on digital whatsits and man's supposed tendency to want to play God — with lots of special effects thrown in.

To be fair to Pfister and other directors who prefer the textural depth and the delicately calibrated shadings of light that old-school technology affords — a loyal band including J.J. Abrams, Steven Spielberg, and Paul Thomas Anderson — shooting on film can make a difference. Except when it doesn't. Transcendence looks very nice; it certainly doesn't look cheap. But even though Pfister and cinematographer Jess Hall lavish a great deal of visual care on the movie's key actress — the gifted and extraordinarily likable Rebecca Hall — her character has little to do but dutifully moon over her sort-of dead husband and colleague, an artificial-intelligence expert whose brain has been uploaded into a computer just before his death and who, from his hologram limbo, now wants to rule the world.

It's probably supposed to make a difference that this digitized despot is played by Johnny Depp, looking characteristically soulful but also, as usual, vaguely whiskery and unbathed — he's the cool-dad version of a megalomaniac. At the beginning his character, Will Caster, comes off as ambitious but mostly well-intentioned, and he's devoted to his wicked-smart wife, Hall's Evelyn. The two hope to create a machine that will combine the collective intelligence of every human being in the history of the world and then turn it up to 11. Plus, it will have emotions.


Directed by Wally Pfister
Warner Bros.
Opens April 18

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You can see early on what a disaster that's going to be. Actually, you know from the very first scene, in which a scruffy-looking Paul Bettany wanders through a city devoid of electricity, running water, and, worst of all, Wi-Fi. (We get the gist of things when we see a shopkeeper using a busted laptop keyboard to prop a door open. It's such an effective image, Pfister uses it twice.) Bettany's Max Waters used to be a friend and colleague of the Casters, and he takes us on a flashback tour of happier times: In the days before Hologram Will got a taste for power, we see the couple chilling out in their garden in Berkeley, as earnest, faux-folky grooves waft from the cheerfully analog turntable they've rigged up nearby, apparently using that antique device known as an extension cord.

But what does it all add up to? You'd think Pfister's love for genuine celluloid and his dedication to craftsmanship would make him a perfect fit for this ostensibly thought-provoking material. (He is a fine cinematographer, though his perceptive work on movies like Laurel Canyon may be a better indicator of his gifts than the flashier pictures he's made with Nolan). But Transcendence, written by Jack Paglen, is just more business as usual, one of those "control technology or it will control you" sermons that nonetheless enlists the usual heap of technically advanced special effects, like healing tendrils of energy that seep up from the earth like phantom vines, necessary to lure audiences into theaters these days. Pfister tries to build layers of complexity into the material — is Depp's character good, bad, or good-bad? — but none of it takes, and the movie's phony, love-beyond-the-grave ending doesn't click, either, partly because we've just watched Hologram Will behave like an egotistical jerk to Evelyn for two hours. Just die already, OK?

Still, Hall never misses a beat. No matter how dumb the material gets, her face always shows what's at stake. She's one of those actors who puts the emphasis on listening rather than talking, her eyes detecting and decoding untruths and deceptions almost before the script does. She deserves better material than this, and a better screen partner. Depp is sometimes an astonishing actor and sometimes a check-cashing one. In Transcendence, you can practically hear the ka-ching. The movie is frustrating for other reasons: A number of welcome figures have been flown in from the planet of underused actors, including Bettany, Clifton Collins Jr., and Cillian Murphy, but none have enough to do. And because you can't have a cautionary tale about the end of life as we know it without him, Morgan Freeman shows up in a series of grandpa cardigans. His presence is necessary to underscore the seriousness of this very serous entertainment, shot very seriously on film. It sure looks great. And it adds up to little.

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  Its funny because; I have this same arguments with my lady friend all the time like " you missed the point babe..i get it..but you cant go living by your assumptions; i meant this not rethink your position. :)"  Its not about what you think should of happened its about what the directors vision was and where he meant to go with it. Wrong or right? There are movies made for you to feel compelled to love with all your being and there are also movies meant to be analyzed with out your personal feelings being  involved  in a selfish way. This movie wasn't meant to be a horror flick so i don't quite see why anyone would compare it to one; it was meant not only to showcase a generations fear of technology but to also show how small minds will and have always hindered progression. Depps character who was clearly misunderstood as power hungry  was so amazing because the director gave us the chance  to be unsure whether or not this was a power mad computer program or truly a transcendence along with all the other characters in the film. Then towards the end we were able to take a look into our main characters true intentions with out our blinders on to see that people were truly just afraid of what was explained as a transcendence. It seems to me everyone has their own opinion on this movie and refuse to attempt to fathom the directors possible motives with out their personal or petty input and; that makes people similar to this guy want to bash your heads with a cricket bat lmao but hey what do i


Transcendence promotes the evil religion of Transhumanism: The notion of downloading human consciousness into a computer has actually been proposed by scientists like Ray Kurzweil & Hans Morevec & other proponents of The Singularity. The concept resonates in the quasi-religious world of Transhumanist philosophy, a philosophy that promotes virtual immortality through mind transfer. Beyond its failures as drama, "Transcendence" actually promotes this ridiculous philosophy/religion. The movie not only suggests that transferring a mind into a computer is feasible & non-horrific, but it depicts a dystopian world caused by reducing/terminating technology. Aside from turning people into hive-mind nano-zombies, technology is shown as saving the eco-system if only the police/government/Luddite terrorist coalition would leave Depp/Evyln alone. The movie is not only narratively & dramatically bad, it's philosophically evil.


The point of the film, that's not well understood in many of these reviews (SPOILER) is that Will Caster's character is so handicapped by the prejudices of 'evil monster' by those around him, that they fail to notice, he never actually kills anyone, nor plans to transform the world into a metallic supercomputer, but instead heals the sick, respects each person's autonomy, and had visions of re-greening the environment.

Instead we see government and terrorist forces joining to destroy all of society in their quest to kill him, who in the end decides to sacrifice everything in order that he and his wife may be preserved in the garden he previously built.


Hey Steph, from a fellow Steph...
I read your bit on LA Weekly this morning on my college campus. It made me laugh out loud because I felt like we channel the same voice.
I was reading the reviews on 'Transcendence' courtesy of Rotten Tomatoes and recognized your opening line. I was about to say something to the reviewer because I thought he plagiarized, when I saw your name and remembered reading you earlier.
Funny shit.


@d.harpy  You've entirely missed the subtext of the film.  There were no hive-mind nano-zombies. They were completely autonomous, as described by Will Caster, but still instilled ignorant fear in the non-enhanced humans.  There was nothing reductionist in the concepts presented, as it relied on existing 'consciousness' that they could not create themselves. The only ones who actually destroyed the planet were those intent on destroying Will Caster, who by all evidence, was acting completely altruistically throughout the film.


@rbairos This. I'm really blown away that this seemed to go over the heads of 90% of people that have reviewed the movie (including Stephanie).


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