Film Review: Transcendence

Johnny Depp is an idealistic researcher whose consciousness is uploaded into an artificial intelligence in this slick techno-thriller with delusions of seriousness from Christopher Nolan's cinematographer.

“They say there’s power in Boston,” intones Paul Bettany at the start of the disappointing Transcendence, the camera panning over scenes of post-technological devastation: street lights dead, keyboards being used for doorstops. The film soon jumps back to five years earlier, setting up its conflict between hubristic technophiles and neo-Luddites which the film tries to structure a coherent story out of. But as idea-popping as that fight has the potential to be, it’s hard not to wish that the film had stayed with that opening scene, in a world struggling to adapt to more primitive times. At the very least, it would have been something we hadn’t seen before.

In the flashback, Johnny Depp plays artificial-intelligence guru Will Caster, the kind with carefully messy hair who gets his picture on the cover of Wired and has groupies. Will is trying to create an overarching Gaia-like sentient computer. A computer-utopian, he wants to allow humanity to leap over the “limits of biology” with the help of his nearly conscious, vast computing network called PINN. His wife Evelyn (Rebecca Hall) and their best friend Max Waters (Paul Bettany) are almost as enamored of Will’s dream as he is. After a network of anti-tech terrorists destroy most of the country’s advanced AI research facilities and leave Will with a critical gunshot wound, that dream looks in tatters.

Transcendence’s Frankenstein twist is that when it seems like Will’s wound is going to be mortal, Evelyn and Max debate whether or not to do the unthinkable: uploading Will’s consciousness into PINN so that he can achieve immortality. Fellow researcher Joseph Tagger (Morgan Freeman) and a skeptical FBI agent (Cillian Murphy) aren’t too crazy about the idea, for obvious reasons, and want to shut it down. It’s a “We can save him” devil’s bargain rife with moral implications that will be familiar to any viewers with even remote knowledge of science fiction or comics. Harder to swallow, as is often the case, are the great big mouthfuls of invented pseudo-scientific argle-bargle that Evelyn and Max throw at each other while racing the clock to get Will’s every thought into the machine. The idea that brain scans can be uploaded en masse to create a speaking, sentient being would bring most researchers in the field to their knees in laughter—but then, if they were consulted, what science fiction would we be left with?

Transcendence strains to create the kind of brainy science-fiction adventure that Christopher Nolan pulled off in the more phantasmagoric and lyrical Inception. First-time director Wally Pfister is Nolan’s longtime cinematographer. This film not surprisingly has some of that clean and machine-tooled aesthetic Nolan uses to deliver his intricately knotted stories. But this screenplay from Jack Paglen (another first-timer) doesn’t have as much going on behind the scenes. As a result, it ends up skirting close to being a bigger-budgeted and better-cast version of Tron, Lawnmower Man, or any of a clutch of other hammy 1980s and ’90s cyber-flicks in which man merges with machine. At the very least, Paglen tries to keep open the possibility that digitized Will might not instantly turn into a rampaging Skynet-like presence intent on eradicating humanity.

Because of its occasional stabs at originality, and its creation of a palpable romantic frisson between Depp and Hall, Transcendence occasionally transcends some of its more rote plot turns. There’s a real love story threaded lightly through the ooh-and-aah effects and man-versus-machine showdown, even if it’s partly silicon-based.

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