Transcendence | Film | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper


A sci-fi thriller about a super-smart machine has a provocative premise but fails to deliver

Inside the mind: Johnny Depp hovers above Morgan Freeman, Cillian Murphy and Rebecca Hall
Inside the mind: Johnny Depp hovers above Morgan Freeman, Cillian Murphy and Rebecca Hall

If a super-smart guy and the Internet merged into a massive artificially intelligent entity, what would happen? According to Transcendence, a bunch of questionable God-playing before the whole world goes off the grid.

As artificial-intelligence researcher Dr. Will Caster (Johnny Depp) faces death, he lets his wife, Evelyn (Rebecca Hall), and buddy (Paul Bettany) upload his brain into his AI thingamabob. (This mind-draining hook-up takes place in an abandoned school gym because ruin porn.)

Once booted up, "Will" merges with the entire Internet. Then, the World's Biggest Brain builds itself an underground lair in the desert. It gets the money from hacking banks (naturally), and an enhanced labor force from inventing new nanotechnologies. To stay human, it stalks Evelyn. (Seriously, girl — when your man starts acting like HAL, get out.)

The former Will has achieved singularity (or "transcendence"), the point at which machines can become sentient, omniscient and ever-expanding. (When I attain omniscience, I hope to learn if the Internet is, in fact, a gigantic screen that constantly scrolls numbers.) It's hardly a new concern: The streets are strewn with Philip K. Dick novels and Matrix sequels, and cautionary tales about accelerating technology are perennial sci-fi thrillers. But there can be fun in exploring the idea, especially as our real life grows more tech-enabled.

Unfortunately, Transcendence is the worst thing a thriller with a provocative premise can be: dull. It has little interest in exploring existential concepts, and the plot consists of predictable set-pieces stacked together. (The two best weapons in this film are a dioxin-laced cake and a radioactive bullet; the two stupidest are Morgan Freeman's patented gravitas and a deus ex machina virus.) Characters are stick figures, moved about by the necessary plot points rather than by any sort of larger logic. (Something is building hybrid people in the desert, and there is one FBI agent assigned to the case?)

Transcendence is directed by Wally Pfister, Christopher Nolan's Oscar-winning cinematographer, who brought a lot of visual panache to the Dark Knight trilogy and Inception. But what this film could use is more words and better structure, rather than exquisite close-ups of water drops or various CGI effects.

Much of the story's tension pivots around Evelyn, who must decide whether to accept Will via love (faith) or reject him via reason (science). Similarly, the larger question of how to deal with such a machine is binary: It's either Will's World or the Stone Age. Grubby humanity trumps perfect tech here because there can be no gray in a simplistic set-up. But the real answer is all around us — our imperfect but productive alliance with technology.

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