Wally Pfister's feature-film directorial debut loses itself in pure fantasy in its second half
2 1/2 stars
Rated PG-13 • Opens April 18
Transcendence is timely and prescient, a thoughtful meditation on the dangers of technology and the megalomania of humanity. With talk of artificial intelligence, neuro-engineering and regenerative cell mutations, clearly the filmmakers did their research in crafting a feasible sci-fi thriller. They're also a bunch of fools to intentionally give away the ending in the opening moments, then still try for dramatic tension leading back to the ending we already know.
It will come as no surprise that Johnny Depp's character is a disheveled, savvy, mumbler and never clean-cut. Depp hasn't played a "normal guy" since, well, ever, and there's no need to start now. His Will is a world-renowned scientist on the verge of a breakthrough in artificial intelligence. Will's wife/fellow scientist Evelyn (Rebecca Hall), colleague Max (Paul Bettany) and former professor Joseph Tagger (Morgan Freeman) all support his efforts to create a computer that has emotions and can evolve (in other words, he's creating Scarlett Johansson's Samantha in Her).
The problem is, the computer will lack empathy and will not be self-aware. Protesters led by Bree, one of Max's former students (Kate Mara), recognize the dangers this breakthrough poses and vow to sabotage Will's work. To wit, they attack and destroy research at A.I. labs throughout the country, and go so far as to shoot Will. He survives the gunshot, but the bullet gives him radiation poisoning and mere weeks to live.
Desperate, Evelyn uses Will's research — which successfully duplicated a monkey's brain inside a computer — and does the same for Will, in effect hard-wiring his mind into the Internet and various online security systems. With his mind feeling fresh and new with absolute power long after his body dies, Will proceeds to try to heal the world — his way.
The moral/ethical dilemmas are fascinating to explore: What would happen if one man/one mind had control over all social infrastructures? At what point does Will cease to exist as the computer takes over? Is it possible to limit a device that was created to continuously evolve and think on its own? All salient questions worth considering, even if writer Jack Paglen's script doesn't offer clear answers.
It also doesn't help that Wally Pfister, best known as Christopher Nolan's cinematographer going all the way back to Memento and continuing through The Dark Knight trilogy, allows the story to devolve into pure sci-fi fantasy in its second half. In his feature-film directorial debut, he lets the story run wild.
When Cyber Will starts curing blindness and the physically impaired, and is able to control minds and voices, you know the filmmakers have stretched the premise too thin. It would've been more interesting to see Compu-Will deal with his newfound duality head-on — i.e., have the man's humanity internally fight with the artificial intelligence he created to see which exerts more control and influence. External forces constantly fighting becomes a predictable yawn after a while, especially when we know the ending.
As a whole, Transcendence is a thought-provoking and occasionally plausible look at what futuristic dystopian drama has warned about for decades. With the blitzkrieg of mindless summer action chaos on the horizon, this could serve as a sobering reminder of the potential dangers technology presents. Or, judging by the screechy, annoying women sitting behind me, it could be another "OMG Johnny Depp is sooo hot!" movie. Either way, it's not that good.