No, cinematographer Wally Pfister’s bid to become a director with Transcendence isn’t what you’d call a raging success. It flopped at the box office, and it more than flopped with the majority of the critics. There are all the pre-fab shibboleths you might expect: Pfister has overreached himself, while Depp is no longer a draw and keeps playing the same character over and over. Surely, you know the drill. Since this is Pfister’s first time at bat, I don’t know if he’s overreached himself or not. He’s certainly followed the basic template of his mentor and producer, Christopher Nolan, by making a somewhat ponderous, pompous and humorless movie. As for the Depp charges, I’m mostly of the opinion that Depp is being systematically vilified for no good reason except it’s the “in” thing to do. Without getting into the psychology and the many fallacies of the Dump-on-Depp game, one thing is certain: This is a restrained performance with no trace of Depp’s more popular characters. In fact, the absence of any vestige of those characters might just be part of the problem here.
The truth is that Transcendence is by no means a bad movie. It is streets ahead of most of what we get that is labeled science fiction. It’s intelligent. It explains its premise — within reason. Its dialogue isn’t chuckleheaded. It isn’t afraid to tackle the Big Questions. Perhaps it ought to have been a little more careful in that last regard, but that’s also what makes the film more interesting than your average multiplex fodder. Transcendence tries very hard to be profound, and it actually gets near it on occasion. Still, it can’t quite escape the sense of being something of a bargain-rate Inception (2010). But I give it high marks for trying. And while it may not successfully grapple with its questions of humanity and the soul, I do believe it’s a deeply spiritual film — much more so than certain other films currently playing that actually make that claim.
The premise is nothing too original. When computer genius Will Caster (Depp) is killed by the effects of a radiation-infused bullet fired by a member of a group of computer Luddite-terrorists, he has his wife, Eve (Rebecca Hall), and his best friend, Max (Paul Bettany), upload his mind into a computer, effectively resurrecting him. Eve is ecstatic, while Max is worried that maybe what’s in the computer isn’t really (or exactly) Will. It’s pretty obvious that Will, or whatever variation of Will this is, will change as his mental powers grow. In fact, it can be said that most of what happens is fairly standard “there are things that man must leave alone” fare, which may actually be enhanced by moving the action to a small desert town of the sort so favored by 1950s sci-fi movies.
There are, however, several very intriguing new wrinkles, and, at bottom, Transcendence is a love story in much the same way as David Cronenberg’s The Fly (1986). In fact, The Fly may well be its closest spiritual relation, especially as concerns questions of the real vs. the synthetic. The Fly, however, is clever enough to tackle this idea head on — even if its method of dealing with it is a little vague. Transcendence offers the viewer nothing but the hint of this as an issue, yet it lies beneath everything that happens. This is especially apparent in the film’s most fascinating variation on its basic premise. It is this variation — a kind of accidental Frankenstein effect that I don’t want to address here in detail — that lingers in the mind more than the film’s undeniable shortcomings. Rated PG-13 for sci-fi action and violence, some bloody images, brief strong language and sensuality.
Playing at Carmike 10, Carolina Cinemas, Epic of Hendersonville, Regal Biltmore Grande.