Movie: Transcendence; Director: Wally Pfister; Studio: Warner Bros. Pictures; Rating: PG-13; My finding: 3 out of 5 stars.
'Transcendence' is nothing if not beautiful and thematically interesting, but cinematographer extraordinaire-turned-director Wally Pfister may have been grasping too high and broadly for his debut abilities as a director.
Many things work in the film, and I seem to have enjoyed it much more than other critics, but what doesn't work drags the film down in considerable ways.
This image released by Warner Bros. Pictures shows Johnny Depp in a scene from “Transcendence.”
What does work is the opening segment where Pfister sets the scene of the new universe without the Internet or really any electricity at all for that matter. It recalls 2006's excellent "Children of Men" in some ways but is even further from technology and seems much happier. It works because it allows us to see nature taking back the Earth through the eyes of a knowing character we don't yet know (British actor Paul Bettany).
Shopkeepers use old laptop parts as door stops and the physical technology of other technology is similarly repurposed or left as litter, but the way cinematographer Jess Hall captures the early-morning sun on those Berkeley, Calif., streets makes everything feel as it should be. We feel this is the natural way of things and it feels good.
Once we see a water droplet fall from a flower, though, we're taken through the opening credit sequence and we're cast five years prior to the same garden where premier artificial intelligence scientist Dr. Will Caster (Johnny Depp) is hanging sheets of perforated copper among the vines above the garden of the home he shares with his wife and partner, Evalyn (Rebecca Hall). Copper, we're told, kills off the signals that allow interconnectivity like mobile phone signals and Wi-Fi, allowing the couple some possible relaxation time away from the technology other than their record player on the stoop of their garden.
But the two will have to speak at a convention that evening on the next generation of A.I. tech and the way it could service the world in research and processing power, rivaling and besting all the humans who have ever lived combined.
"So you want to create a God? You want to create your own God," asks a young, stuttering man in Will Caster's audience.
Caster, by the way, is the rock star of his field and had spent the hours before his speech signing autographs for idealistic college students.
"Isn't that what humans have always done?" Caster asked in response to the man.
But then the unimaginable happens and Caster has just weeks to live. Simultaneous terrorist attacks have wiped out some of the best minds in artificial intelligence science and industry across the country. A network of radical Luddite cells is to blame, and the FBI group investigating the cells, headed by Agent Buchanan (Cillian Murphy), can only work at the speed of the human mind to track them down.
The plot is crackerjack.
Unfortunately, there's very little humanity on display in this tech-centric world. To give away further plot could very well ruin the enjoyment, but it's not too much to say that the realm of artificial intelligence grows far larger than any of the researchers had ever imagined. It is capable of fixing people and the environment through a sort of terraforming system, but also to turn them into automatons hell-bent on serving the idealistic purposes of an A.I.
Some people are blind to what that power could mean, while others, like Buchanan, Caster mentor Dr. Joseph Tagger (Morgan Freeman, who can't help but add some humanity in everything he does), Luddite leader Bree (Kate Mara, who is terribly underused here), and, eventually, Bettany's character Dr. Max Waters, who is the Caster's best friend, can see the power for what it is.
Pfister has the tech under control and puts his hired cinematographer Jess Hall to beautiful, grand use that his prior work experience including 2011's "30 Minutes or Less" and 2007's "Hot Fuzz" would never have suggested. The film is eye candy, but we don't feel that disconnect between humanity and technology that we felt in that opening walk-around with Bettany in the post-tech streets of a former tech-city.
That's too bad, because I love these types of movies. The only reason I have a smart phone now is that people in my life were concerned I was becoming a Luddite and would have ended up in a cabin somewhere, me against the world.
I can understand the fight for preserving humanity and the world we know, but there's not enough of the natural world or humanity to be found in this film.
(Flint McColgan is a staff writer for The Minot Daily News. His movie reviews appear in Thursday's Arts &?Entertainment section.)