Dir. Wally Pfister
2.5 out of 5
All machines-run-amok scenarios share a common hurdle: how do you demonize hardware? Most of them avoid this question entirely - the burden of guilt tends to fall on those creating or controlling the technology rather than the technology itself. The techno-thriller Transcendence looks at the current Internet age and sees something more disconcerting than mad scientists or sleep-deprived programmers hitting the wrong keystrokes. In a world where we've allowed various forms of artificial intelligence to exert so much control within our lives, how long until they realize how much power they truly possess?
To be fair, every system needs an input, and Transcendence has computer genius Will Caster (Johnny Depp), a rockstar inventor developing a sophisticated supercomputer called P.I.N.N. that mimics brain activity to achieve a almost-sentient consciousness. Will, along his wife and fellow scientist Evelyn (Rebecca Hall) and his colleague Max (Paul Bettany), believe in their work's ability to address massive global concerns such as poverty, hunger, and pollution. However, a neo-Luddite terrorist group sees a perversion of nature, and one of its agents fatally wounds Will with a radiation-tainted bullet.
Desperate with grief, Evelyn and Max use Will's last weeks to fulfill his last-ditch plan to upload his own consciousness into P.I.N.N., abandoning his mortal body in exchange for a prolonged digital lifespan. Will dies but the gambit works: he speaks to Evelyn first through a command prompt, then as a voiceover and eventually as an omnipresent 3D avatar. The breakthrough causes a rift between Evelyn and Max, with the latter providing the obligatory warnings about overreaching technology while the former sees a way to extend both her emotional and academic relationships with her late husband. Even for a grieving widow, though, she seems pretty naive; Evelyn barely bats an eye when Will casually requests to be connected to the Internet so he can probe global financial markets.
The film sustains itself largely upon its own admirable creative gumption as well as its talented cast, particularly Hall, who ably translates Evelyn's grief into a workaholism that conjures a sprawling solar-powered compound for Will's project - now called "Transcendence" - in a blighted desert town. Renowned cinematographer Wally Pfister, best known for his collaborations with Christopher Nolan, also brings a fully-realized visual sensibility to his directorial debut: a creeping claustrophobia that prominently features Evelyn among long corridors of servers, solar panels, and research bays, as if trapped in a literal labyrinth of technology.
Unfortunately, Pfister and writer Jack Paglan keep bumping up against the limitations of the undercooked yet overcrowded plot. Transcendence has a way of awkwardly combining its heady, hard sci-fi themes with dramatic cues straight from a B-movie, and the tumble down the slippery slope begins when Will starts turning people into his own networked acolytes. Much like the Transcendence project itself, the movie's ambitions often outstrip its logic. Max's story is downright baffling, first with his eleventh-hour protests ringing hollow alongside his admiration for and acquiescence to Will. Later he's kidnapped and apparently turned by the same Luddite terrorist (Kate Mara) who ordered the murder of his best friend, not to mention a bunch of other top computer scientists. And too much time is spent on thinly-sketched, practically superfluous characters like Cillian Murphy's bland FBI agent and Morgan Freeman's wizened government scientist, who appear to be filling some kind of Nolan repertory quota.
Transcendence ultimately boils down to the same old conclusions about new technology. On paper it almost resembles a darkest-timeline version of Her. In practice it's the kind of film where a scientist can mysteriously vanish from mainstream academia and triumphantly reappear as a liaison between terrorists and law enforcement. Give Pfister credit for wanting to make a Nolan-esque "big ideas" movie within the boundaries of a satisfying plot-driven genre thriller. Sadly, Transcendence only lives up to half of that billing, a movie that winds up showcasing the flaws of man and machine alike.