Director: Wally Pfister
Cast: Rebecca Hall, Johnny Depp, Paul Bettany, Cillian Murphy, Kate Mara, Morgan Freeman, Cole Hauser, Clifton Collins Jr.
MPAA Rating: (for sci-fi action and violence, some bloody images, brief strong language and sensuality)
Running Time: 1:59
Release Date: 4/18/14
Review by Mark Dujsik | April 17, 2014
Every idea with potential is raised in the first act of Transcendence, never to be heard from again. Is it possible to create a sentient artificial intelligence—one that is self-aware and can rationalize decisions in a way similar to the way the human brain does? If the contents of a specific human brain were transplanted into a computer, would the person still exist? Would the computer program of that brain's functions be a soulless replica, or is whatever we consider to be a soul transferred along with the rest of the neurological network?
Jack Paglen's screenplay is top-heavy with all of these considerations—either spelled out explicitly or implicitly suggested by the ideas that are spoken. Once the movie gets a human mind into a computer, though, the bounty of previously pondered questions is reduced to the singular: Is the computer good or evil? That the movie builds and builds the evidence in favor of one conclusion only to make a complete turnaround in the final minutes shows how uncomfortable Paglen is with even this most simplistic of ethical concerns.
It's incredibly underwhelming, too, considering the possibilities of the setup. It becomes little more than a piece of Luddite paranoia—creating a scenario where there is no option but to condemn the overreaches of technology while ignoring the benefits or turning them into something inherently sinister.
There's nothing wrong with a little suspicious check on the downside of technology every now and again, but the way the movie dismisses its central technological conceit wholesale means that we're essentially watching characters go through the motions until events lead to a point where there's no room for any idea aside from the destruction of what mankind has wrought upon itself. These characters may say they're open to an alternative viewpoint, but once the computer has revealed its eerie intentions, we're really only waiting out the inevitable.
That promising first act follows the husband-and-wife team of Will (Johnny Depp) and Evelyn Caster (Rebecca Hall), who have been working on creating an advanced A.I. and now find themselves singing for their supper at a presentation for potential donors. While going through the sales pitches with their colleague Max Waters (Paul Bettany), there's a coordinated attack on various computer labs and facilities perpetrated by a terrorist organization called R.I.F.T. Will is also a target, taking a bullet from an assassin who goes on to kill himself.
The attempt turns out to be more successful than it first appears, as the bullet contained a radioactive isotope. Will has mere weeks of life left, and Evelyn and Max come up with a plan to try to save his mind by implanting it into the memory core of a supercomputer, which was previously under the care of their associate Joseph Tagger (Morgan Freeman). Evelyn and Max debate whether or not the result will actually be Will or just a convincing facsimile, and it's around this point that the movie runs out of philosophic juice.
The plan is effective, and what appears to be Will's mental essence is compressed into binary. The computer talks like Will, sees through a camera, hears through a microphone, and has the desire to infiltrate the World Wide Web as a means to gain as much knowledge and power as it can. Max worries the Will they knew is gone, ultimately joining up with R.I.F.T. and its leader Bree (Kate Mara). Evelyn is convinced she's been given a second chance to live with her husband, who now happens to want to take control of the entire planet from a central base in a massive, open-plan facility—long, cavernous hallways that seem to have no end—built under a no-horse town in the middle of nowhere.
Years pass, and the movie loses even more of its grasp on the central conceit. It instead opts for a magical whatsit in the form of nanomachines that can do anything: healing all sorts of wounds, creating matter from seemingly nothing, and turning the population of the small town into super-powered drones that do Computer Will's bidding. Only slightly more convincing is the growing tension between Evelyn, who finds living with a husband with no physical form or physiological needs increasingly unnerving (He plays sound effects of chewing and knife-scraping while she sits at the dinner table), and Computer Will, but almost all of its limited success is due to Hall's desperately vulnerable performance and the fact that Evelyn is the only character with a dilemma outside of what the plot requires her to do next.
The movie is the first-time directorial effort by veteran cinematographer Wally Pfister, who shows a knack for portraying technology (This material could have been exponentially more ridiculous, save for Pfister's relatively minimalist take on the locales) and implementing it in terms of visual effects. As over-the-top the climax becomes—an assault of bullets, explosions, and wispy swarms of microscopic robots—it's never visually dull; in fact, some of it—especially the mists of machines—is quite impressive. None of that, though, can disguise that Transcendence sacrifices big ideas for far more trifling matters.
Copyright © 2014 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.
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