Film Review TranscendenceWarner Bros.

"Transcendence," which marks the directorial debut for Christopher Nolan's longtime cinematographer Wally Pfister, aims to be a thinking man's sci-fi blockbuster. In it, Johnny Depp stars as Dr. Will Caster, a brilliant scientist close to creating the first truly sentient computer. But when his life is cut short by anti-AI extremists, Will's wife Evelyn (Rebecca Hall) decides that the only way to save him is by uploading his consciousness into the machine. Of course, like any good Frankenstein's monster, the resulting creation has a mind of its own.

It's a lot to process in two hours, and Pfister's movie asks several important, philosophical questions that it doesn't necessarily answer -- about mankind's reliance on technology, what it means to be human, how far you'd go for someone you love, and, most importantly, why doesn't Morgan Freeman like birthday cake? But we'll leave those to smarter minds than ours. Instead, here are some of the other key questions we still have after coming out of "Transcendence."

Does making the cover of "Wired" really get you groupies?
When Will shows up to deliver his fateful keynote speech, sort of a pseudo-TED talk, he's besieged by groupies asking him to sign their dog-eared copies of "Wired." It's an expedient way for the movie to let us know that he's some kind of rock star scientist, a prospect it seems the filmmakers found so dubious, they decided to have Paul Bettany's character explicitly question more than once. Because, sure, out of all the crazy things "Transcendence" asks us to suspend our disbelief for -- that a person's consciousness could be uploaded to the cloud, or nanotechnology that can heal the blind in seconds -- that's the one they apparently think the audience is going to take issue with. We get it, he's Johnny Depp. He could hand out parking tickets all day and he'd still have a fan club.

Does Will come with a built-in screensaver?
Because it sure looks that way. When the computer version of Will isn't projecting Depp's face onto one of his many screens or soothing Evelyn with some wine and light adult contemporary, there's a shot of goldfish swimming, and a silhouette of a ballet dancer. The only thing that's missing is a flying toaster.

Why does Paul Bettany seem like the only one who's trying here?
For a movie so concerned with the mysteries of human emotion, Pfister's cast is conspicuously lacking in that department -- Depp, in particular, which is fine when he's playing a super-advanced AI, but he's pretty robotic as a human too. Which might help explain why Evelyn has so much difficulty figuring out whether the sentient super-computer is really her husband. As one of Will's scientist colleagues and an FBI counter-terrorism agent, Freeman and Cillian Murphy (respectively) barely register; they're basically here to do Pfister and executive producer Nolan a favor. Bettany's the only one of the bunch who manages to give his character much in the way of a soul.

What was the FBI doing all that time?
Midway through the movie, "Transcendence" jumps forward in time two years, while the consciousness-formerly-known-as-Will's power and reach grows exponentially. Both the FBI and the Neo-Luddite terrorist organization R.I.F.T., led by Kate Mara's Bree, have known about the potential threat he poses this whole time, yet for some reason, they take a two-year hiatus so he can get stronger. There's no real reason the movie's time frame couldn't have been compressed, but it's symptomatic of a larger problem: that the pacing of the film is clunky. Ostensibly a techno-thriller, "Transcendence" jumps awkwardly between confusing plot points and its larger themes, preventing the movie from building any real momentum.

Why was that blind guy so unfazed by regaining his sight?
One of Will's major scientific breakthroughs involves the use of nanotechnology to repair damaged human tissue, help the disabled walk again, reverse disease, and save lives. Not to mention build an army of networked, super-strong human/computer "hybrids" out in the desert (but don't worry about that, everybody). The Casters initially demonstrate this world-altering medical triumph for Freeman and Murphy's characters in their lab, where they give a man who's been blind since birth his sight back. Which ends up meaning that the first thing he sees in his entire life is Freeman's face squinting at him from six inches away, and the guy barely flinches. Then again, he probably just recognized Freeman's soothing dulcet tones from "March of the Penguins."

Would anyone really use a keyboard as a doorstopper?
This isn't a spoiler: "Transcendence" opens five years in the future, in a world devoid of power and/or technology, one where broken cell phones litter the ground and dusty old keyboards are used as doorstoppers. It's a shot Pfister likes so much, he recycles it again at the end. It's also a pretty trite visual metaphor. As an Oscar-winning cinematographer, Pfister lets his eye for well-composed visuals get the better of him at times, often at the expense of the story. Or to put it another way, water droplets get almost as much screen-time as Kate Mara does.

Why wasn't this movie better?
Given the vast amounts of talent both behind and in front of the camera, it's a little disappointing "Transcendence" didn't turn into the intelligent, exciting sci-fi thriller it clearly had the potential to be. Instead, much like Will's transformation, the movie is started with the best of intentions, but quickly gets away from its creators. It's more a modern update on "Frankenstein" than a gender-reversed "Her," and the pod people "hybrids" certainly offer some creepy visuals -- only they don't actually, you know, do anything other than just stand around and act like a walking Bluetooth speaker for Will. Ultimately, the problem is that "Transcendence" doesn't seem to know what it wants to say, about technology, about humanity, and the intersections between the two. It aims to be the type of movie that'll have you talking afterwards; thanks to a few odd plot holes and some questionable internal logic, it succeeds, although probably not in the way the filmmakers hoped.

"Transcendence" is now playing in theatres.

CATEGORIES Interviews, Movies