By Bill Wine
PHILADELPHIA (CBS) – Remember Her? Well, say hello to Him.
Or, rather, Transcendence, as it’s actually called, another science fiction thriller about the inevitable collision between humanity and technology. Only this one is a cautionary tale about our dangerous reliance on technology. And it’s awkwardly big and clunky instead of attractively modest and spunky.
Johnny Depp stars as Dr. Will Caster, a terminally ill neuroscientist in Berkeley who downloads his body into a computer, thus granting himself what amounts to unstoppable power.
Caster is a well-known researcher and proponent in the field of artificial intelligence.
The controversial A.I. project he’s been working on, which involves a machine that combines intelligence and emotion, has made him the target of anti-technology extremists determined to stop him from achieving his goal of Technical Singularity or Transcendence – the creation of a world in which biology and technology are combined and computers can transcend the abilities of the human brain.
But his enemies inadvertently motivate him to live out what the film’s title describes when he gets radiation poisoning as the result of a terrorist’s assassination attempt and then becomes a participant in his own transcendence. That’s because his wife and colleague, Evelyn, played by Rebecca Hall, suggests that, to save him, they upload his intelligence – his thoughts, his memories, his personality – and digitize his consciousness in their super-computer.
But when Will’s uploaded consciousness later says, “I’m gonna need more power,” he’s not just referring to electricity. He suddenly seems intent on gaining unstoppable power over everybody.
For his best friend, also an academic colleague played by Paul Bettany, neurobiologist Max Waters, it’s a question of: should he encourage and support him or oppose and stop him? Evelyn wonders if she’s simply enabling as well. Perhaps they’ll have to turn to the very terrorist enemies who opposed Will to stop him from… Well, from what?
Meanwhile, Will’s mentor, a professor played by Morgan Freeman, who acknowledges both sides of the ethical dilemma, agrees to help FBI agent Cillian Murphy in his pursuit of the terrorists.
This is the directorial debut of veteran director of photography Wally Pfister, who won the Best Achievement in Cinematography Oscar in 2010 for Inception and has shot all but one of the other films of director Christopher Nolan as well (Including The Dark Knight and The Dark Knight Rises). Nolan is, not coincidentally, one of the executive producers of Transcendence.
So it’s no surprise that the film looks great. But there’s so much story that the narrative is often befuddling.
Embedded in the screenplay, a first by Jack Paglen that plays out as one long flashback – which significantly undermines if not extinguishes the film’s suspense component — is an initially intriguing exploration of such concepts as consciousness, sentience, and self-awareness and whether they are in any way quantifiable, as it were. It also explores megalomania in the character arc that Depp’s Dr. Caster lives out.
But the plot is so contrived, so all-over-the-place, so belittled by its own unnecessary shoot-em-up action, and eventually so nonsensical that we can’t help but tune a lot of it out, even if the premise remains compelling.
As for the distracted Depp, he doesn’t look particularly engaged in any of this. Or maybe he’s just underemployed in his role. Whatever the reason, he seems singularly uninspired.
So we’ll upload 2 stars out of 4 for the flat sci-fi thriller, Transcendence, which aspires to an emotionality that it never earns.