Don’t look now, but the “mindfuck” subgenre appears to be alive and well in Hollywood after all. Hot on the heels of the critical and commercial success of Christopher Nolan’s Inception, it seemed as if every major studio was hot to trot out product designed to play with our collective perception of reality, and from the runaway blockbuster Bradley Cooper “starring vehicle” Limitless to Duncan Jones’ eminently forgettable Source Code to the surprise hit Looper, no linear view of time, space, or human history was safe. High weirdness was definitely the flavor of the month for a good little while there.
And then things got kinda quiet. It’s almost as if the powers that be decided they wanted us firmly grounded in “the way things are” after all. But apparently not everyone got the memo.
Perception-bending seemed like fertile ground for ace cinematographer Wally Pfister to explore in his directorial debut — after all, he won a well-deserved (and frankly overdue) Oscar for his work on Inception — and so here we are again, with another big-budget, big-name production designed to make us question all we know about what it means to be human, how immortality might be achieved via electronic means, what constitutes conscious “life,” how an individual with limitless power might affect the world, etc. By now, you know the drill.
The funny thing is, though, that there seems to be another memo that Pfister didn’t get, either — namely, the one that says movies of this sort are already played out, irrelevant, and passe — because this here flick he’s come up with, Transcendence, is actually pretty good.
Okay, fair enough — it’s hardly great, but it certainly deserves better than the woeful 23% (last I checked, at any rate) score it received at Rotten Tomatoes, and the subsequent cool reception it got at the box office is kind of a shame, too. Think of it this way : this film, which actually asks relevant questions about life after death, has struggled to find an audience, while “the punters,” as the Brits would say, have positively lapped up the feel-good pablum of Heaven Is For Real (even though, sorry, it ain’t). Are you depressed yet? Because I kinda am.
One thing Transcendence has going against it is the fact that it does, in fact, feel rather dated — not just because the “mindfuck” is supposedly over and done with, but because the cast is peppered with a few folks who were supposed to be the “next big thing” a few years back, but never quite hit it big (look for supporting turns from Paul Bettany and Cillian Murphy, for instance), but I’m not going to knock Pfister too hard for that, given that they actually do a pretty good job for the most part.
Johnny Depp, on the other hand, does seem a bit uneven as Dr. Will Caster, our protagonist who gets shot with a radiation-laced bullet by “Neo-Luddite” activists who aren’t exactly keen on his artificial intelligence experiments. His devoted wife, Evelyn (Rebecca Hall, who turns in a really nice, and very human, performance) finds a way to use her old man’s own tech to keep him “alive,” in a manner of speaking, as a disembodied, semi-discarnate series of electrical impulses, and it’s when Depp has to basically play an A.I. simulation of himself that he runs into a little bit of trouble.
It’s not that his sudden even-keeled blandness is a problem, per se — hell, I’d be kind of flat and listless if I were “living” inside a fucking machine, too — it’s just that he never seems entirely synched up with the scale of his own ambitions after his “rebirth.” He decides to pretty much fix every problem in the world by thinking his way around them, and seems oddly resigned to the fact that nothing can really even threaten, much less stop, him, and is therefore just playing out some pre-destined role as the “guy” who’s going to elevate humanity out of all of our various dilemmas simply because, well, he can.
I’ll grant you, the megalomaniac sci-fi computer overlord bit has been done to death, but some kind of emotional affect would have been welcome here, rather than Depp just playing Caster 2.0 as, essentially, Dr. Manhattan minus not just the blue cock, but the whole entire body. To say audiences are going to have a tough time connecting with this character is an understatement of epic proportions.
Still, both the aforementioned Hall and Morgan Freeman, playing the couple’s one-time friend and colleague, do a nice enough job providing points of entry to/identification with the admittedly far-fetched proceedings, and House Of Cards‘ Kate Mara is eminently believable as the anti-A.I. crusader/”terrorist’ who eventually wins over the Casters’ closest ally. Bettany, to her cause. The ethical and philosophical tug-of-war being played out as Caster keeps on ‘transcending” us, whether we want or need him to or not, is indeed very palpable at least among the supporting players, who are asked to carry a lot of the weight here given that the film’s star is, for the most part. a digital re-enactment of himself.
And it’s when it’s asking those tough philosophical and ethical questions that Transcendence really shines. Sure, all this may seem like the kind of movie that would have been more at home ha it come out two years ago, but given that no less an authority than Stephen Hawking (hardly a technophobe) just said earlier this week that artificial intelligence could prove to be “our biggest mistake ever.” the themes that Pfister and screenwriter Jack Paglen are exploring here remain, in my view at least, as relevant as ever. Some form of this shit is coming down the pipeline at some point — what that means, and how we deal with it, could very well determine whether our species has any sort of future, at least in any form that we recognize, or not.
If I were to compare this film to any other recent offering, though, I might not look in the direction of Inception (even though, stylistically, this is very much recognizable as coming from the House of Nolan) so much as I would Spike Jonze’s unjustly-celebrated, and frankly downright offensive, Her — the main difference being that whether or not Evelyn Caster “loves” her now-electronic husband is already settled from the outset, and that Pfister has the guts to actually answer the questions he’s raising rather than cop out like Jonze did. Best of all is that his answers actually make sense, as well, and demonstrably show, as Alan Moore managed to do 20-plus years ago in the pages of Miracleman, why a perfect world is the most frightening one of all, especially if the guy (or consciousness) trying to “give” the rest of us that perfection is unaware of what’s so damn scary, and frankly wrong, about it.
Admittedly, I went into this one with decidedly low expectations and that probably helps Transcendence in terms of coming off as a “pleasant surprise,” but even if I knew nothing about it, I think I’d be impressed (albeit with some reservations, obviously). This is smart, gutsy film-making, and Pfister takes a hell of a lot more risks than most established directors would ever dream of doing. He forces us to confront all the possible ramifications of a forced utopia, and both what it will mean for us if we play along or if we don’t. He has a definite point of view, and isn’t shy about expressing it, but he’s honest enough to show the issue from all angles, and to let us decide for ourselves.
Confident without being brash, opinionated without being preachy, intelligent without being overbearing, dramatic without being overly (or worse yet nauseatingly) sentimental, Trasncendence is, much like the humanity it ultimately embraces and champions, full of flaws but nevertheless worth experiencing.