If nothing else, Wally Pfister’s directorial debut deserves points for trying to be big science fiction that’s utterly uninterested in robots, laser beams or future dystopian societies populated with spunky teenage girls. Instead, Transcendence wants to tackle ideas as grand as what it means to be human, the destructive (and redemptive) power of love and the ethical limits of technology.
But wanting to do something and actually following through on those intentions are two very different things.
Will Caster’s (Johnny Depp) research into artificial intelligence is on the cusp of a major breakthrough, but while his wife (Rebecca Hall), his best friend (Paul Bettany) and the subscribers of Wired magazine are excited by the possibilities, not everyone is as happy. The anti-technology movement acts with a decisive, multi-target attack leaving dozens of scientists and keyboard jockeys dead and Will barely clinging to life. The decision is made to “save” his life by uploading his brain to their quantum processor-powered super computer, but once there his unchecked power becomes a threat to all of mankind.
Transcendence opens with Max (Bettany) walking the electricity/technology-free streets of Berkeley, CA as he narrates how he “knew the Casters better than anyone.” So yes, it pretty much tells us how it ends before jumping back five years to Will giving a speech on the dream and reality of creating AI smarter than all of the people who have ever lived on Earth. The terrorist attack by RIFT threatens to set the research back indefinitely out of fear that man is playing god, but when it becomes clear that Will won’t survive, the idea of uploading him into the existing AI comes into play.
Evelyn (Hall) is desperate to hold onto her husband and seeing this as the only option she overrides Max’s very real concerns and goes through with it. The now computerized Will quickly dips his electronic fingers into all manner of pies, gaining knowledge and power by the second, and when RIFT comes looking for Evelyn she and her online husband move to a more discreet location. They buy up the small town destroyed in the movie Thor and renovate it as a home base.
So far so good, but it’s here where things get messy in some majorly ridiculous ways as Jack Paglen’s script splits into two threads.
Evelyn and Will live in a bunker beneath the desert floor in a state of the art lab where straight-up magic is occurring thanks to his immense processing power. He’s curing the environment and people with an army of nanobots, and soon folks are lining up for treatment – limbs are recreated, muscle strength is increased ten-fold – and like Jesus attending to the needy, Will even restores a blind man’s sight. Sure, he’s also installing wifi cards into the people and adding them to his network so they can be controlled at any given point but whatever… he’s curing all illness! Evelyn is okay with all of this, but when she discovers he’s also been tracking her hormone levels she realizes he’s gone too far.
Simultaneously, Will’s wise friend (Morgan Freeman) has joined forces with the FBI’s smallest unit (consisting solely of Cillian Murphy), a group of apparent mercenaries and the murderous members of RIFT (including Kate Mara) who’ve apparently been forgiven for all the murdering they did in the first twenty minutes. This is the extent of the outside world’s reaction to Will’s behavior. Max is also along for the ride, actually leading an assault as scientists are wont to do, but their actions are based entirely on assumption and fear. Will makes no aggressive move and instead has invented medical miracles destined to save countless lives, but for some reason nobody but these dozen or so people seem to care. And they all want his evil Dr. Frankenstein shenanigans stopped at any cost.
The big events, much like the vaguely discussed big AI ideas, are discussed at the surface level only, and while we know the whole world (and the U.S. government) would be watching only a handful of players are involved in it all. The scale between action and reaction is completely askew, and that combined with us already knowing how things end thanks to the film’s opening scene means there’s absolutely zero suspense or drama to be found here.
The big questions are reduced to little more than a most basic morality play about man’s insatiable thirst for knowledge, and rather than explore that gray area the film appears to take a clear stand against man’s natural curiosity for no other reason aside from it makes for a “cool” bad guy. Sci-fi is about exploring big ideas, seeing where they can take us, but Transcendence is content asking a basic question and giving an even more basic answer. It’s a simplistic take on what should be deep concerns, and it makes for a dull and ultimately uninteresting film.
The cast seem equally uninterested for the most part, particularly Depp who does most of his acting from a computer screen, but Bettany and Hall do their best with the material. They find emotion that isn’t in the script, and while it’s not nearly enough to salvage anything, the effort is appreciated.
Pfister has chosen a terrible script for his directorial debut, but at least he’s made a somewhat attractive picture. This is of course the absolute least we could have expected from an award-winning cinematographer taking a turn as director.
The Upside: Bettany and Hall do good work with what they’re given; some attractive visuals
The Downside: Script is a mess; character behavior is nonsensical; film drags; the nanobot business is taken to ridiculous extremes
On the Side: Pfister is a four-time Oscar nominee for Best Achievement in Cinematography and won for Inception.