As Christopher Nolan’s go-to cinematographer, Wally Pfister was as responsible as anyone for turning caped crusading and interlocking dream-bound heists into the new fantasy realism. His eye for dense images arguably gave Nolan’s trendy downbeat fanboy bait their weight, and his penchant for high saturation on the dark end of the color spectrum made plausible more than a few CGI sequences. You could charitably say that with his help, the arrested development at the heart of Nolan’s movies evolved to the next level. Conversely, depending on how troublesome you found the age of terrorism politics throughout the “Dark Knight” trilogy, you could also uncharitably say that his details legitimized a new cinematic devil.
In a similar fashion, Dr. Will Castor (Johnny Depp), the protagonist of Pfister’s debut film as a director, Transcendence, has spent his life chasing down the chimera of creating fully functioning artificial intelligence. Unlike other scientists, he believes that human consciousness is a code that can be cracked. And, if his relationship with his “partner in science and in life,” Evelyn (Rebecca Hall), is any indication, the code ain’t that byzantine. His research is in the bull’s eye for RIFT, an underground terrorist movement whose fear of Bayesian babies toddling around without guarantee of conscience is couched within concerns about identity theft. (Hello, Heartbleed!) Their concerns, as it turns out, are just the tip of the silicon iceberg. Following the group’s series of attacks on the research community, Will accelerates his research and becomes, literally, the ghost in the machine.
So far, so good, but so briefly. Though lensing duties have been turned over to Jess Hall, Pfister still predominately retains his talent for avoiding surrealism in his trick shots. In accordance with Pfister’s aesthetic, Transcendence was reportedly shot on 35mm, but it’s with some irony that Pfister’s own alliance with analog pits him on the side of RIFT’s extremists. Not so much because their point of view isn’t presented with validity, but more so because the primary objections they hide behind are so synchronous with the objections religious types have against evolutionary theories. It’s not the idea that man evolved from hairier beasts that irks them, it’s the natural conclusions of the theory—i.e., the evolutionary process will continue to change the species in the future, and our souls are not eternal—that terrify them. Probably about as much as it terrifies Pfister to wonder if his next paycheck will be signed by Michael Bay.
That religious theme is feebly double underlined once Will, from inside the seemingly sentient computer, starts applying his enhanced research findings on humans, healing the wounded like a QR Christ and turning out an army of hybrids. Evelyn, who’s served as Will’s shepherd throughout, is forced to consider questions raised long ago by their mutual friend and colleague, Max Waters (Paul Bettany). Is Will for real? Can artificial intelligence be trusted? How can a touchscreen touch you in the morning? All these questions and more were so hauntingly explored in Spike Jonze’s magnificent Her, and in such effectively microcosmic form, that the detours and shortcuts that pile up as Transcendence lapses further into nü-tech sci-fi cliché seem all the more regressive in its wake. If you programmed an algorithm to figure out how The Lawnmower Man might be retold by Snake Plissken at the conclusion of Escape from L.A., you’d still wind up with a more recognizably human effort.