“Transcendence,” the directorial debut of cinematographer Wally Pfister (“The Dark Knight”) is a sleek, smart techno-thriller loaded with interesting ideas — until it stops being any of those things.
Like a snazzy new laptop that immediately heats up and stops working, this exploration of our reliance upon technology — and how far mankind will subsume itself to its creations — seems great when it’s right out of the box. But by the end of two hours, you’ll find yourself wishing that first-time screenwriter Jack Paglen had taken his creation to a Genius Bar for a thorough de-fragging.
Researcher Will Caster (Johnny Depp) has become famous as one of the world’s leading proponents of artificial intelligence, but he’s more interested in how far the field can progress than in any ethical issues or altruistic possibilities of his work; that’s something he leaves to his close friend Max (Paul Bettany), who wants to use technology to save the world.
Good or bad, their AI research has drawn the attention of a group of Luddite, anti-tech terrorists, who manage to simultaneously strike researchers around the country, killing several and wounding Will with a bullet. When it turns out that bullet was treated with radioactive polonium, the scientist learns he has only weeks to live.
Will’s loving wife Evelyn (Rebecca Hall) is at first devastated, but when they realize that one of their slain comrades successfully uploaded the consciousness of a rhesus monkey from its brain into a computer, Evelyn and Max attempt to do likewise with Will. They transfer his thoughts, memories and personality into his super-computer PINN (Physically Integrated Neural Network).
Once the upload is complete, Evelyn is thrilled, but Max immediately worries that the computer has become cognizant — what Will called “transcendence” — and is using a simulacra of Will to get Evelyn to go along with its plans, which involve making a ton of money on stock trades, buying up an entire deserted town and building an elaborate underground bunker with a mega-giga-computer from which ghost-in-the-machine Will can change reality as we know it.
Up to this point, “Transcendence” is a little “Her” and a little HAL 9000 — which is fine — but once we get clued into what cyber-Will’s ultimate plans are, the film gets a lot dumber, throwing in contrivances that keep the audience from wrestling with complex questions and raising plot points that make less and less sense the more you think about them.
This is the kind of film where, by the time you’ve reached your car in the parking lot, you find yourself asking your date questions like “Why was the nano-technology visible to the human eye?” and “If computer Will can scan Evelyn’s biochemical emotional reactions, why can’t it catch her lying?”
The movie begins with a flash-forward that takes away much of the suspense, and that’s the kind of move you can only pull off if you’ve got another, better card to play. But by the time “Transcendence” wraps up, the movie has clearly chickened out of grappling with any of its deeper issues and instead provides a cowardly quick fix.
Pfister, who’s been shooting for director Christopher Nolan (executive-producing here) for years, definitely brings some visual style to the proceedings, even though he hasn’t come up with a new way to show a thinking computer (lots of screens with scrolling gibberish characters) or a sleek tech complex (get ready for those long, white hallways that date back at least to “THX-1138” and “The Andromeda Strain”).
If there’s one solid take-away from “Transcendence,” it’s Rebecca Hall’s performance as a computer genius (she’s not just Will’s wife, she’s his collaborator) so blinded by grief and by the possibilities of pushing science to the next level, that she aids and abets Will’s ambitious, terrifying agenda. She remains committed to the character even when the plot’s logic goes 404 – Not Found.