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Mainframes and Hallways: The Endless Corridors of "Transcendence"

Photo of Sam Adams By Sam Adams | Criticwire April 17, 2014 at 4:13PM

With an artificially intelligent Johnny Depp, Transcendence" seems like a simplistic Luddite fable. But its images say something more complex, and more interesting.
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An artificially inteligent Johnny Depp meets Morgan Freeman, Cillian Murphy and Rebecca Hall in "Transcendence"
An artificially inteligent Johnny Depp meets Morgan Freeman, Cillian Murphy and Rebecca Hall in "Transcendence"

Linda Holmes, of NPR's Monkey See blog, has a nifty post up today about the use of of endlessly receding spaces in Wally Pfister's "Transcendence," which opens on Friday. Among other things, it's a great example of what smart critics can do when they're freed from the format of a straightforward review (NPR has one of those, too), and a demonstration of how to spin multiple pieces out of the same subject without restoring to speculative filler.

As the directing debut of an Oscar-winning cinematographer, "Transcendence" naturally looks great, but Holmes isn't dwelling on how it looks so much as why it looks that way. (You could even say she's focusing on form.)

There's a fine line between a motif and a tic, and the corridors here are treading right on that line. But when they work, they create a sort of infinite space, while at the same time, you can imagine yourself becoming tinier and tinier until it you blink out in a dot and vanish into oblivion. (Hey, it's the inevitability of death! Also known as planned obsolescence for humans.)

Critics have mostly attacked "Transcendence" as being pretty but devoid of ideas, but it's important to remember that ideas can be expressed in visual terms as well as through dialogue and plot, and for critics of a visual medium, it ought to be second nature. Given that Pfister's career to this point has been almost exclusively as a maker of images, it stands to reason he'd be more at ease with them than with the newer demands of the top job. But most reviews of the movie treat it as a script with some pretty visuals sprinkled on top.

Rebecca Hall in "Transcendence"
Rebecca Hall in "Transcendence"

I wouldn't argue that "Transcendence" is a great or even a particularly good movie, but there's an interesting ambivalence in its visual language that surpasses the flat and simplistic terms of first-timer Jack Paglen's script. The story of a fatally wounded tech visionary whose consciousness is implanted into the artificially intelligent computer he's devoted his life to developing ends up as a technological cautionary tale, but Pfister's camera -- the photography here is by Jess Hall -- is constantly seduced by the gleaming banks of supercooled mainframes which, as Holmes points out, dwarf the human figures that traverse them. But they also suggest, for me, the untapped, and perhaps unknowable, depths of the human mind, which for all its added processing power is still the basis of "Transcendence's" A.I. 

Pfister himself is something of a traditionalist, as one of the movie industry's most militant holdouts against the imposition of digital technology. And yet, as "Transcendence" goes on, the screen is slowly but steadily invaded by computer-generated effects, at which point the celluloid origin of what amount to glorified background plates starts to seem pretty well irrelevant. Some of the movie's most beautiful images are shot from the A.I.'s point of view, including a breathtaking rendition of the San Francisco skyline as an electronic waveform. You could argue, I suppose, that Pfister's just been seduced by the prettiness of the toys at his disposal, but it also adds a layer to the movie's Luddite fable that its script eventually rebuffs. (No spoilers, but suffice it to say that what seem to be the benefits of the A.I.'s progression turn out to be either double-edged or nonexistent.) None of this makes "Transcendence" good, exactly, but it does make it more interesting than many critics have so far allowed.


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