Movie review: Man melds with machine

Movie review: Man melds with machine

Transcendence (PG)
119 minutes / In theatres now / 2.5/5

The story: Scientist Will Caster (Johnny Depp), with the help of wife Evelyn (Rebecca Hall) and associate Max (Paul Bettany), struggles to create a sentient computer. After he is poisoned by extremists led by Bree (Kate Mara), Evelyn and Max migrate the contents of his brain into his computer, hoping to keep his mind alive after the death of his body.

Wally Pfister. You might have never heard of him, but you know his work. As cinematographer, he partnered director Christopher Nolan to make Inception (2010) and three Batman movies (2005, 2008, 2012) as visually distinctive as they were commercially successful.

With this film, he makes his debut as helmer, helping film nerds everywhere answer the question: How much of the magic in the Batman films and Inception can be credited to Nolan and how much to Pfister?

The question is reductivist, but it was perspective-bending set pieces such as the mid-flight kidnapping in The Dark Knight Rises (2012) and the inverted room punch-up in Inception (2010) that made audiences realise that they were watching something very different.

Those scenes were as much feats of practical effects and camera work as they were the creative input of a director.

On the surface, the story here feels Nolanesque, as it begins with someone who can reshape reality. Dr Caster (Depp) is on the way to creating a machine intelligence superior to the sum of all human minds, past and present, but a crime forces those closest to him to meld his mind with that of his nascent creation.

The rest of the film is a passable if somewhat chilly version of the cautionary tale of Frankenstein's monster, updated with warnings about omnipresent cyber-surveillance and the global plague of nano-robots (the so-called "grey goo").

Pfister and team fail to find an engine to drive the story. For much of the time, the audience waits for the omniscient Caster, the fickle god, to do the next awesome or awful thing.

Perhaps because of budget constraints - unlike Nolan, Pfister had to work without major studio support - these events are not anything you have not seen before.

Disappointingly, these are created digitally, rather than with the practical effect set-ups associated with the Nolan-Pfister partnership. There are groan-worthy missteps, such as when zombies - yes, zombies - appear.

Hall is excellent as the increasingly terrified wife watched over by an all-powerful husband (bringing to mind Shelley Duvall's memorable part in The Shining, 1980).

In playing the man-machine god, Depp's deliberate flatness recalls the ship computer Hal, from yet another Stanley Kubrick movie, 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968).

It might be a strange thing to say, but the old Hal felt more alive, and was much more interesting, than this one.

This article was published on April 16 in The Straits Times.

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