The new Johnny Depp film “Transcendence” will please those who think their cell phones are spying on them while their computers secretly plot to rule the world. Technophobes will find much to like in this high tech thriller—which speaks of “the unstoppable collision between mankind and technology”—but how about those of us who don’t believe in Hard drive Horror?
Depp plays Dr. Will Caster, a bespectacled (so you know he’s smart) scientist whose pet project is an Artificial Intelligence device. It will be, he says, “a sentient machine that will quickly overcome the limits of biology; in a short time, its analytic power will become greater than the collective intelligence of every person born in the history of the world.”
In other words it’s a self-aware computer with feelings and the combined intelligence of all humanity. “Some scientists refer to this as the Singularity,” he says. “I call it Transcendence.”
Call it what you will, but when R.I.F.T. (Revolutionary Independence From Technology) extremists try to end the project by ending Caster with a radiation laced bullet they open the door to a new, dangerous phase of the experiment. As he lay dying his thoughts, knowledge and memories are downloaded into his Artificial Intelligence machine, creating a high tech Frankenstein, only with a better vocabulary.
With binary code coursing through his veins instead of blood, Caster has now transcended, but his wife Evelyn (Rebecca Hall) and best friend Max (Paul Bettany) are left with a conundrum as the scientist becomes more and more advanced. Is this the dawn of a more advanced age or a techno terror controlled by a power mad ghost in the machine?
“Transcendence” asks some interesting questions. Can technology provide some sort of life after death? Does artificial intelligence offer more promise or peril? How much humanity can a computer program possess? Is “Her” a better movie about love in the computer age?
The questions are interesting and might have been thought provoking if “Transcendence” was a better movie. Director Wally Pfister (best known as Christopher Nolan’s DOP of choice) and screenwriter Jack Paglen tackle big questions head on, but in the most perplexing of ways. Weird tonal shifts from sci fi to cyber love to techno terrorism make for a drearily paced film. Add to that unclear character motivations—MILD SPOILER ALERT: exactly who’s side is Max on?—and an underdeveloped love story and you’re left with a film that brims with promise but underwhelms.
So too does Johnny Depp. You have to cut him some slack because for 90% of the film he only appears on computer screens, doing his best HAL impression, but he seems to have checked out long before his character does. Hall and Bettany do some soulful work, but are hampered by a love story that is more about code than contact.
“Transcendence” has style, and it should, Pfister (who used DOP Jess Hall on this film) is a gifted shooter who gave us one of my favorite shots of recent years—The Joker hanging out of the cop car in “The Dark Knight,” surrounded by blurred lights and city scape. Given the choice I’d choose to watch that thirty seconds again and again over spending one more minute in the lackluster world of “Transcendence.”