Transcendence is a frustrating, boring and incoherent film about a dead doctor and devoted husband who’s been uploaded into an artificial intelligence mainframe. He has lightning-fast access to the world’s information and very well may have gone mad with absolute power. But even as his comprehension of the totality of human experience approaches levels we mortals couldn’t possibly understand, his belief in the institution of marriage remains curiously untarnished. It’s a rock solid premise that, like its protagonist, has gotten drunk on its own possibilities.
This is Wally Pfister’s first time directing. Before this, he worked as a cinematographer for Christopher Nolan movies like Inception and The Dark Knight. Hate to say it, but don’t quit your day job.
Johnny Depp stars as Dr. Will Caster, in a nice reprieve from his heavily costumed roles of late. (We know Caster’s a normal guy because he’s wearing his own tortoiseshell glasses.) Rebecca Hall plays his devoted wife, Evelyn, who favors us with what looks a lot like a TED Talk presentation on the future applications of artificial intelligence—mostly curing illnesses and growing plants.
Their early prototype is a room-sized computer with a lady voice named Penn. She seems about as smart and amoral as Siri, which is to say, she needs a little work. Meanwhile, not everybody thinks it’s a good idea to put god in the machine, so to speak, and a rebel terrorist cell called Rift manages to put a poison bullet in Caster’s belly. They’re trying to stop the mad scientists from the scourge of quick algorithms, but the plan backfires. They should have just used a bullet intended to kill instantly, because the doctor has four weeks left to live and it’s just the right amount of time to start uploading his brain to the Internet.
Why do these people care about artificial intelligence so much, and why is the opposition so afraid of it? These are questions that screenwriter Jack Paglen seems to think we can fill in for ourselves, but that’s not the case. His characters behave like automatons marching toward arbitrary ideals, and this is long before the plot ever literally turns them into cyborgs.
Caster wakes up in the machine and suddenly the team’s third member, Max (Paul Bettany), has a kind of panic of conscience. He doesn’t believe the thing is really his friend, but rather a computing machine with Caster’s voice and face, unburdened by morals. (Never mind how the computer spontaneously creates a perfect digital replica of Johnny Depp’s face projected on any surface in any room at will—it just does.) Evelyn believes that it really is her husband in there, and will spend the rest of the movie devotedly implementing his increasingly grandiose plans toward growing plants and healing the sick.
In seconds, the couple has infinite money at their disposal and they set off to take over a tiny town called Brightwood. They’re counting on the fact that no one will notice rows upon rows of satellites sprouting up in the desert or that they’re turning the townspeople into remote control drones. And it’s true, nobody cares except for a few of the Rift terrorists, plus Morgan Freeman and Cillian Murphy in roles that are poorly written and miscast. Who do they work for and what motivates them?
There is still a kernel of greatness to be found in the weird interplay between the hypnotized wife and her ever-devoted computer husband. They’re rich beyond their wildest dreams and live in a futuristic house. Evelyn’s husband can inhabit other people’s bodies. He tries to lure her with borrowed genitals and wonders why she isn’t in the mood. He can read her hormonal levels and tell whenever she’s upset or afraid of him.
It’s good, terrifying stuff, but it’s not enough to save the picture. A cloud of nanobots sweeps in like a giant cartoon fist and devours the third act. The hubris of a bunch of first-time filmmakers plus Depp has taken over the movie theater and no one is safe.
Transcendence continues at the Carmike 12.