Transcendence is a seriously frustrating sci-fi enterprise. On the one hand the film is chalk of full of interesting (albeit well tread) ideas – technology vs. humanity, free will vs. destiny etc. etc. On the other hand the film is stupendously dumb and has very little to say about any of said ideas. Its camp in the highest order with a serious bit of Hollywood gloss smeared on the lens to distract us from the lack of substance.
Johnny Depp stars as Will Caster – a super famous-scientist living with his wife Evelyn (Rebecca Hall) in Berkley. They’ve been working in tandem to better the world through science (how noble!) Their master project is a super computer name PINN that may or may not be the world’s first self-aware artificial intelligence. They plan to use PINN for many things including curing disease, quickly regenerating rotting plant life and bettering the world in various other ambiguous ways.
After a speech to potential investors at the college, Dr. Caster is assaulted by an anti-technology terrorist and shot before the terrorist takes his own life. The bullet grazes him but is laced with radiation leaving Will with only weeks to live. Lucky for Will his wife and fellow super-genius best friend Max (Paul Bettany) devise a plan to implant Will’s consciousness into PINN so he can live forever. After some completely tension-less moments Will appears on screen and quickly begins evolving into the largest, most sentient AI in the world. It’s not hard to parse out that things don’t go as planned.
The odd thing about this set up is it’s fairly compelling (considering what comes later.) All the actors give interesting, nuanced performances (with the exception of Depp who without crazy wigs and makeup seems completely bored by the proceedings) and the plot develops at a crisp clip. The problems arise almost immediately when the band of techno-terrorists are introduced. Their reasons for tech-murder are so silly it’s like they watched The Matrix and REALLY took it to heart. And they aren’t given much to do except snarl and give really bad speeches about the nature of humanity. Kate Mara (fresh off of hamming it up on House of Cards) even shows up as the leader and is saddled with a one-dimensional, thankless role.
When the film turns into a race against time to stop Will’s ever expanding power it abandons nearly all of its philosophical pretensions for basic showdown movie clichés. It feels like screenwriter Jack Paglen got really stoned and wrote down all his “best ideas.” Then after a nap and some nachos his clear mind attempted to reconcile them but stood no chance against stoner-mind ramblings.
Even despite the immense problems with the film at least first time Director Wally Pfister knows how to frame a shot. He’s most known for his work as cinematographer on all of Christopher Nolan’s films and his talent for composition is apparent. The film is beautiful on IMAX. Unfortunately (and this could be a script issue) it seems basic story structure has escaped him in Transcendence. And why is Morgan Freeman in this movie?
I often argue with my wife about the virtues of film and television that don’t offer easy answers. I find it fun to dig into themes, symbolism and ideas. For me, it enriches the movie-going experience. For the first 45-minutes of Transcendence I found myself immersed in that experience. Unfortunately the unraveling is swift and obvious, leaving most of the thematic questions answered in very rudimentary fashion. It’s sci-fi for the Ritalin generation: an expertly made film masquerading as “highbrow” with a tidy ending and absolutely nothing to say.