I have no idea what “Transcendence” is about.
Here’s what I do know.
I know it stars Johnny Depp as Dr. Will Caster, a photogenic genius aiming to create the highest form of artificial intelligence. I know it features Rebecca Hall as his wife, Paul Bettany as his techy friend, Kate Mara as an anti-technology revolutionary (she scowls a lot), and Morgan Freeman as the designated sage.
I know that director Wally Pfister wants to introduce big issues about technology and how it’s too big for humans to manage.
I know this would work if Pfister and writer Jack Paglen built the action from one conflict. If you adapted a checklist of themes a script should cover, you would get “Transcendence.”
I know that before Dr. Caster dies, Bettany and Hall’s characters save his mind. This involves a monkey’s brain and a supercomputer and a secluded gymnasium that Hall just finds. Dr. Caster’s intelligence survives and grows because he’s now the most super of supercomputers. Or something.
I know that Dr. Caster’s intelligence can manipulate the stock market to make millions, help his wife stay step ahead of frowny Mara and her minions, and know to set up shop in the dusty town that’s been a screenwriting cliché since “The Last Picture Show.”
I know that Dr. Caster becomes a god, not the God. I know that he requires more power. He (it?) gets it. Years pass. Cripples walk. The blind see. Super-humans are born.
I know this twist defines the lukewarm beige excitement that dominates “Transcendence.” That’s because Pfister and Paglen throw developments on screen to see what sticks without telling us how or why. Suddenly, Dr. Caster is a combination of Mother Teresa, Jonas Salk, and Samantha from “Her.”
I know that Mrs. Caster is uneasy having an omnipotent presence as a husband. I know this issue cannot be broached and dropped, like when they should reorganize the junk drawer. Ditto Bettany suddenly bonding with Mara’s modern Luddites and Freeman becoming an FBI sympathizer. When emotions become involved, these characters act on a screenwriter’s whim. This happens a lot.
I know it helps to have a villain if you’re tossing moral dilemmas around like parade confetti, and forget about slowing down so a talented cast can dig in.
I know a director can only ask the audience to “just go with it” so many times. Choose a story, set the scene, and escort us through that world. “And then…” is an awful approach for a story — unless you’re 5 years old.
I know Pfister is Christopher Nolan’s longtime cinematographer, so I’m puzzled why “Transcendence’s” visual style does little to complement the story.
I know “Transcendence” lost me when it became clear that Paglen and Pfister only wanted to move the movie along.
I know they don’t cultivate the emotional content, so the final stretch — involving a blood-splattered reunion between Dr. and Mrs. Caster — is insulting. You’ve rushed us along; now you want us to remember events from the first five minutes? Not happening.
I know that I don’t know what Dr. Caster was trying to accomplish, which led to those neat-o special effects. I gave up. I was too bored, too confused, or too insulted to keep paying attention.
I know I was happy when “Transcendence” ended.
-For more of Pete’s cinematic musings, please follow him on Twitter, @PeteCroatto.