Film and TV

Transcendence is a tepid sermon on technology's power over humans

Sometimes it's helpful to know certain details about how a film has come together. And sometimes it's just so much information. Transcendence, the directorial debut of Christopher Nolan's go-to cinematographer, Wally Pfister, was shot on film rather than digitally, as most big Hollywood movies are today. Is that going to make you like it better than you might otherwise? That depends on your tolerance for quasi-cerebral cautionary tales about our dependence on digital whatsits and man's supposed tendency to want to play God — with lots of special effects thrown in.

To be fair to Pfister and other directors who prefer the textural depth and the delicately calibrated shadings of light that old-school technology affords — a loyal band that includes J.J. Abrams, Steven Spielberg and Paul Thomas Anderson — shooting on film can make a difference. Except when it doesn't. Transcendence looks very nice; it certainly doesn't look cheap. But even though Pfister and cinematographer Jess Hall lavish a great deal of visual care on the movie's key actress — the gifted and extraordinarily likable Rebecca Hall — her character has little to do but dutifully moon over her sort-of-dead husband and colleague, an artificial-intelligence expert whose brain has been uploaded into a computer just before his death, and who, from his hologram limbo, now wants to rule the world.

It's probably supposed to make a difference that this digitized despot is played by Johnny Depp, looking characteristically soulful, but also, as usual, vaguely whiskery and unbathed — he's the cool-dad version of a megalomaniac. At the beginning, his character, Will Caster, comes off as ambitious but mostly well-intentioned, and he's devoted to his wicked-smart wife, Hall's Evelyn. The two hope to create a machine that will combine the collective intelligence of every human being in the history of the world and then turn it up to eleven. Plus, it will have emotions.

You can see early on what a disaster that's going to be. Actually, you know from the very first scene, in which a scruffy-looking Paul Bettany wanders through a city devoid of electricity, running water and, worst of all, wi-fi. (We get the gist of things when we see a shopkeeper using a busted laptop keyboard to prop a door open. It's such an effective image, Pfister uses it twice.) Bettany's Max Waters used to be a friend and colleague of the Casters, and he takes us on a flashback tour of happier times: We see the couple chilling out in their garden in Berkeley, in the days before Hologram Will got a taste for power, as earnest, faux-folky grooves waft from the cheerfully analog turntable they've rigged up nearby, apparently using that antique device known as an extension cord.

But what does it all add up to? You'd think Pfister's love for genuine celluloid and his dedication to craftsmanship would make him a perfect fit for this ostensibly thought-provoking material. But Transcendence, written by Jack Paglen, is just more business as usual, one of those "control technology or it will control you" sermons that nonetheless enlists the usual heap of technically advanced special effects — healing tendrils of energy that seep up from the earth like phantom vines, for instance — necessary for luring audiences into theaters these days. Pfister tries to build layers of complexity into the material — is Depp's character good, bad, or good-bad? — but none of it takes, and the movie's phony, love-beyond-the-grave ending doesn't click, either.

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Stephanie Zacharek was the principal film critic at the Village Voice from 2013 to 2015. She is a member of the New York Film Critics Circle and of the National Society of Film Critics. In 2015 Zacharek was named a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in criticism. Her work also appeared in the publications of the Voice’s film partner, Voice Media Group: LA Weekly, Denver Westword, Phoenix New Times, Miami New Times, Broward-Palm Beach New Times, Houston Press, Dallas Observer and OC Weekly.