Directed by Wally Pfister
By using the same fear tactics to scare us away from a tech-heavy future, “Transcendence” does what “Disconnect” and “Her” did months ago. It’s the directing debut of Wally Pfister, the Oscar-winning cinematographer of seven Christopher Nolan movies…but it was shot by Jess Hall, the cinematographer of “30 Minutes or Less.” And that’s not the only way “Transcendence” gives off mixed signals. Is it a message picture about the ills of technology? Is it just a big-budget action movie? Does it even matter? It didn’t have a very Good Friday, making just over $4 million (including my $5)…that was only half as much as the “Captain America” sequel, which made almost $10 million on its third Friday in theaters. Ouch.
Johnny Depp is perfectly cast in the role of Will Caster, a mad scientist type who wants to explore the unlimited benefits of artificial intelligence. His wife, Evelyn (Rebecca Hall), is also his lab partner in this journey of discovery. But a group of social activists known as RIFT (Revolutionary Independence From Technology) want to keep alive the sacred interactions of free-thinking human beings. They want to stop the spread of intelligent computers. So they kill computer researchers around the country, and attempt to take the life of Will Caster. But with technology, nobody can kill the man behind the most revolutionary science ever created.
Like he has in so many movies, starting with his role as God in “Bruce Almighty” but continuing through the Dark Knight trilogy and movies like “Now You See Me,” Morgan Freeman plays what could simply be called “Reasonable Old Black Man.” In “Transcendence,” he plays Joseph, who has always seen the destructive effects that “big technology” could have on humanity and now tries his best to stop it. At this point, long past movies like “Driving Miss Daisy” and “The Shawshank Redemption,” Morgan Freeman has lost his luster. Maybe soon he’ll stop being in movies like “Dolphin Tale” and “Olympus Has Fallen” (both with much-unanticipated sequels coming soon) and take on another good role. Thankfully, we don’t have to see this fall from grace for very long – Freeman’s screen time is relatively short. Unfortunately, the real star of “Transcendence,” Rebecca Hall, has a lot of screen time. Far more than any other actor. But her performance just screams “Mehh.” Maybe she isn’t fit for the lead. And while Depp looks the lunatic scientist part, he underacts as much as he always does.
So back to the big question – what is “Transcendence” trying to tell me? A complicated message makes the case that technology can be destructive, but then it goes back on its message to tell us that it can also have extreme benefits in the fields of healthcare and criminal investigation. So which is it? Unfortunately, a love story that has no time to develop (unlike “Her,” which gave its central virtual relationship way too much time to develop), weakens any real effect the movie might have on viewers looking for a takeaway. It’s not vague because it’s good, like other Nolan-related movies (“Memento,” “Inception”), but because it’s not good. In the end, we don’t really care enough to decide for ourselves what it was trying to say. It wasn’t even able to transcend my boredom. Maybe next time, Wally.
“Transcendence” is now in theaters.