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.
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.