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Visual Dazzle Of 'Transcendence' Won't Live Up To The Title

Peter Mountain
Warner Bros. Pictures
Johnny Depp as Will Caster in 'Transcendence.'

In his brilliant Modern Times, Charlie Chaplin is absorbed into a machine. That was 1936. In the new movie Transcendence, in 2014, Johnny Depp uploads himself to the Internet - this is not a moment of pure genius.

It’s becoming a season for whacked-out movies with tacked-on hard-core environmentalist messages. Earlier, Noah blamed human beings for outrages to nature and seemed to agree that drowning all but a few of us was a good cure for Earth’s ills.

Now comes Wally Pfister’s Transcendence, a movie so dazed and confused that it makes Noah look like a model of simple logic – but again the bad guys earn their disastrous fates because they are ruining the natural world.

Ultimately, Transcendence is about scientific overreaching, but it takes a loony route to get there. A computer scientist portentously named Will Caster (Johnny Depp) is interested in artificial intelligence and does fairly outlandish research. Both he and his wife make elegant presentations to a gathering of scientists, and it’s hard to miss the arrogance in their voices. Some anti-technology guerrillas shoot Caster with a radioactive bullet, but before he gives up the ghost, Caster and loving wife Evelyn (Rebecca Hall) upload his mind to the Internet, and he goes power crazy.

I wish I could say that Transcendence is a comedy. Unhappily, it’s done with a face that’s both straight and very long, with the kind of intricacy that can pass itself off as deep, but only in the short run.

When movies head into the maze of computerism, I simply get lost. Then, at one point, the now virtual Caster has so re-wired the world that he can heal the sick. A man blind since birth lies on a bed while squiggly lines dance around his face and eyes – that’s the sign of Internet Caster in action. The eyes suddenly work and the man can see – and that is not how it goes. In the rare instances when people blind from birth suddenly regain sight, it’s a terrifying and incoherent experience, not a moment of peaceful completion.

A wise teacher once observed about a metal sculpture that if a sculptor is going to weld things that sculptor had better know how to do it – and the welds in Transcendence are sloppy.

Wally Pfister is here directing his first movie. By trade, he’s been a cinematographer – on such films as The Dark Night Rises, Inception and The Dark Knight, pictures with lots of heavy shiny darkness, and directed by Christopher Nolan.

Transcendence looks like cinematography run amok.

It can be intricately beautiful, but there’s no restraint or judgment behind the complicated images. Pfister shoots with a very short focus, so that only the near foreground is clear. You keep wondering if the film is out of focus or if the projection is bad, because it seems to have no point to it. Is the short focus a metaphor for short-sightedness, as in Will and Evelyn Caster not understanding that they’re going beyond what human beings can rightfully or capably do?

Credit Peter Mountain / Warner Bros. Pictures
Warner Bros. Pictures
Rebecca Hall as Evelyn Caster in 'Transcendence.'

Maybe, or maybe it’s just a showy choice to put out a lot of cool glowing images.

Transcendence heads for big questions from start to finish, especially the one about human beings playing gods – about technology outpacing wisdom. That’s a good question for a society that right now worships technology without hesitation, and it’s the one element in the movie that keeps you watching. But this movie is not about to discover anything smart on that subject. It’s much too entangled in visual dazzle, and complicating itself until it grows both silly and inert.

And wouldn’t you know, with all the guys in the movie doing their worst, with Internet Will Caster on the verge of taking over the entire world, Transcendence still manages to blame the one woman. It practically has to turn itself inside-out and upside-down to do it, but in a mind-boggling move, one of the guys turns to Evelyn – the first syllable is EVE – and says that changing the world was her dream, not Will’s.

They should have just said the Devil made him do it.

Howie Movshovitz came to Colorado in 1966 as a VISTA Volunteer and never wanted to leave. After three years in VISTA, he went to graduate school at CU-Boulder and got a PhD in English, focusing on the literature of the Middle Ages. In the middle of that process, though (and he still loves that literature) he got sidetracked into movies, made three shorts, started writing film criticism and wound up teaching film at the University of Colorado-Denver. He continues to teach in UCD’s College of Arts & Media.
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