That man would have the hubris to reach the level of a god is a notion that has long animated both myth and literature. To see such ambition brought low is a story that never gets old, and that premise is the best part of “Transcendence,” a belabored science-fiction fantasy that aims for what its title advertises and falls far short.
In his first film as director, acclaimed cinematographer Wally Pfister (“The Dark Knight Rises,” “Inception”) has made a movie that predictably looks good but has little substance beneath its shiny, digitally enhanced surface.
Pfister, making his directorial debut after years as a cinematographer often teamed with director Christopher Nolan (a “Transcendence” producer), doesn’t exhibit a sure hand with dialogue or a feel for the rhythm of his narrative. Neither does the film have the distinctive form of his prior photography work, most notably “The Dark Knight.” (In imagery, “Transcendence” pales in comparison to the sumptuous sci-fi of the recent “Under the Skin.”)
Johnny Depp is Will Caster, the Tony Stark of artificial intelligence, a hotshot scientist and Wired cover boy on the verge of a breakthrough in the merging of man and machine that he believes could be the answer to hunger, disease and other global ills. His best hope is a computer called PINN (Physically Independent Neural Network).
But the work he and his colleagues – including his wife, Evelyn (Rebecca Hall), and best friend Max (Paul Bettany) – are doing has sparked opposition from a terrorist group called RIFT (Revolutionary Independence From Technology). This outfit – whose slogan is “evolution without technology” – wants to unplug humanity from machines altogether.
This independence doesn’t include explosive devices and guns, though, and the group uses them to take out many of those working with Depp and another AI pioneer, Joseph Tagger (Morgan Freeman). They make an attempt on Will’s life, which at first seems to have failed – he is shot but survives – but then it turns out the bullet was coated with a radioactive material. With only weeks to live, Will, along with Evelyn and Max, decide to upload Will’s mind into PINN so that his brilliance is preserved.
Of course, the law of unintended consequences being what it is, Will’s ego and sense of power increase exponentially once his mind is paired with the seemingly limitless power of a machine that can tap into all of the world’s computers and see everything everywhere. Will wants to eradicate cancer and conflict – a good thing – but seeks to link everyone in a “hive mind” with him at the controls. Not so good.
That’s when Evelyn and Max, who are totally Team Will at first, come to the realization that maybe this man-machine thing wasn’t such a bright idea after all.
As in Nolan’s “Inception,” Pfister, working from a script by first-time screenwriter Jack Paglen, shows an instinct to drive the genre elements toward a more personal story. “Transcendence” ultimately hinges on the relationship between Will and Evelyn. The excellent Hall, looking a bit confused by what she’s gotten herself into, does her best to emotionally ground Pfister’s increasingly unfocused and heavy-handed story.
While “Transcendence” has nothing new to say about absolute power corrupting absolutely or the friction between technology and humanity, it still could have been an engaging thriller.
But it’s lined with plot holes so big that they take you right out of the movie. Evelyn, while still in Will’s thrall, marches into a desert town with millions wired into her bank account by all-powerful Will, hires a crew of local ne’er-do-wells and then, seemingly overnight, secretly builds a sprawling, wired campus that makes Google headquarters look like a tiki shack.
It’s from here that Will, like The Brain on the old “Pinky and the Brain” cartoons, plans to take over the world. But wouldn’t someone take notice? The local power company? The mayor? The NSA?
Then the explosions start and “Transcendence” goes the way of so many big-budget movies where performances are subservient to special effects. But even on this basic level, “Transcendence” isn’t very special.
Humanity’s hubris may indeed be dangerous, but Hollywood’s is just boring.