'Transcendence,' Though Flawed, Is a Movie You Simply Can't Ignore

The film's plot is confusing and difficult to follow, but in today’s high-tech reality, that might not matter.

Uri Klein
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Johnny Depp in 'Transcendence.'
Johnny Depp in 'Transcendence.'
Uri Klein

Transcendence Directed by Wally Pfister; written by Jack Paglen; with Johnny Depp, Rebecca Hall, Paul Bettany, Cillian Murphy, Kate Mara, Morgan Freeman

The fear of what technology can do has haunted American cinema since the end of World War II. In the 1950s, with the advent of the Cold War and the widespread anxiety about a potential nuclear holocaust, numerous American films (most of them B-movies) treated technology in a dual manner. These movies displayed the dangers of technology, but also showed how technology could provide the solution to the crisis its capabilities created.

“Transcendence” is the directorial debut of cinematographer Wally Pfister, who since 2000 has worked regularly with director Christopher Nolan (here one of the producers), and in 2010 won an Oscar for shooting Nolan’s “Inception.” It is a more advanced version of those 1950s movies, with one fundamental difference. The older pictures had an ideological directness that, while often simplistic, gave them a symbolic power. “Transcendence,” in contrast, tries to deal with its central themes in a more complex and sophisticated way, hoping to reflect the way technology now dominates every aspect of our lives. The result is a conceptual mess.

“Transcendence” has power, although the cinematography, which Pfister this time entrusted to Jess Hall, is occasionally coy and nowhere near as exciting as the films he shot himself. Responding to it requires that we pass over much problematic writing. But what seem like holes in the plot and arbitrary, disconnected narrative components might not be a problem for the target audience, since “Transcendence” – like almost any Hollywood movie today – is aimed at young viewers.

We live in a world dominated by images rather than narrative. Perhaps more than any other recent picture, “Transcendence” demonstrates the upstaging of narrative by the visual, whose cumulative effect is meant to sweep the audience along. I envied the audience that grew up in the technological reality the film describes, an audience for whom this technology is a familiar, accessible world, when to me it is still alien. Perhaps what seemed to me like a conceptual mess would seem to viewers who grew up in this reality as a correct and comprehensible ideological existence, filled with familiar contradictions and conflicts.

Modern-day mythology

“Transcendence” gives us a cinematic world whose appearance is controlled by computers, their screens showing images that are at once 
concrete and abstract, mysterious, thrilling and accessible, accompanied sometimes by unsolvable equations. More than any other recent picture, I think, 
Pfister’s movie makes free use of the language of contemporary technology, and I had to cross through this visual and linguistic essence to get to the movie itself. Although I never lost interest, I was not always able to do that.

I will say as little as possible about the plot, which uses some familiar horror movie themes – such as the mad scientist and love that reaches beyond death – in the context of contemporary technology. “Transcendence” tries to create a modern-day mythology on the basis of this technology, its place in our lives and our attitude toward it, and even to give that mythology the feel of a religious allegory. This aspect of the movie aims to give it depth and breadth, but the shallowness with which the theme is handled has the opposite effect. The heroes of “Transcendence” are three colleagues and friends, leading scientists in the field of artificial intelligence; their goal is to combine all the intelligence in the world with every human feeling there is. The team is led by Dr. Will Caster (Johnny Depp), whose studies, lectures and articles have made him an international celebrity. Assisting him in his work are his wife, Evelyn (Rebecca Hall), and his best friend, Max Waters (Paul Bettany). Their activity arouses the outrage of radical anti-technology organizations, and when one of these groups resorts to violence, its actions end up backfiring.

For much of the film, Depp appears on a computer screen when he is seen at all; for long stretches of time, all we hear is his voice. The movie’s setting in time is deliberately vague, going back to a moment five years before its starting point, and then leaping three years ahead. This handling of time is one of the more fascinating sides of “Transcendence.”

It is not clear what the film is trying to say: its position on each of its ideological components seems to reverse itself with every plot twist. The result is not emotional and conceptual ambivalence, but rather confusion. Emotion is scarce in “Transcendence,” because the characters are deliberately schematic; they are like pieces on a chessboard playing out a purposefully unclear game that is meant to represent today’s technological reality and the resulting human experience. Dialogue is the movie’s weakest aspect.

“Transcendence” is not a movie you can simply ignore. Its interest in technology and the way it hints at a possible apocalypse (another recent trend) make it a work that presumes to represent its era and translate it into a cinematic vision. For me, this effort was only partly successful. The movie lacks ideological and narrative focus, and it uses this blurry quality as a deliberate statement that does not come across as coherent. Yes, “Transcendence” is a mess from start to finish; but this may be precisely why one day, when we sum up the filmmaking of our time, we will not be able to overlook it. Paradoxically, it is too flawed not to leave a mark.