Do you feel that the invention of the internet was a mistake? Do you think that society is obsessed with modern technology to an unhealthy degree? Do you believe that the global connection the internet allows us to have is far less important than the potential loss of personal privacy? If so, you're likely the ideal audience for Transcendence, a technophobic thriller which suggests that we're quickly approaching the brink of doom and that joining forces with Luddite terrorists is a perfectly reasonable life choice.
Will Caster (Johnny Depp, Dark Shadows) and his wife Evelyn (Rebecca Hall, The Town) are esteemed scientists who have been doing groundbreaking work in the realm of artificial intelligence. For the past few years, they have been working on creating a sentient computer. It's been a difficult process, but if they succeed, Will is convinced that it will create “Transcendence” - his preferred term for a technological singularity. In other words, the computer would be able to improve itself and create other, even more advanced machines, marking the dawn of a new technological era. If all goes according to plan, disease, poverty and war would be things of the past.
Alas, this is a big-budget sci-fi movie, not a star-studded visualization of an old H.G. Wells essay, so things do not go according to plan. Shortly after giving a speech on his work, Will is shot by members of Revolution Independence from Technology (or R.I.F.T.), a terrorist organization devoted to destroying A.I. labs across the entire country. Will would have recovered from the shooting under normal circumstances, but unfortunately, he was hit with a radioactive bullet. As such, he is given no more than a few weeks to live. Ever the adventurous scientist, he sees this situation as an opportunity: he will attempt to upload his consciousness into a computer, thus potentially fulfilling his career ambitions.
Again, it's worth reminding you that this is a big-budget sci-fi movie, not a heartbreaking documentary about mental illness. Will's body dies, but the transfer works: his consciousness still lives inside a large hard drive. He has no physical form, but he is still able to speak in a voice that sounds very much like his old one. Naturally, Evelyn is overjoyed by the development, but Will (or “Will,” if you prefer) isn't interested in merely maintaining an unconventional marriage. He has to save the world.
I'll leave the details of what happens for you to discover, but let's just say that things go south. There are so few surprises in Transcendence, partially because the film's worldview is so predictable (if technology that doesn't currently exist enters the picture, you can be sure it'll be the cause of something terrible) and partially because it borrows so many conventions from sci-fi movies of yesteryear. Bits and pieces of 2001: A Space Odyssey, Brainstorm and Frankenstein are littered all over the screenplay, which wouldn't be a problem if the screenplay had something of its own to contribute.
Surprisingly, Transcendence doesn't even have some cool imagery to help distract us from its clunky, derivative ideas. The film is the directorial debut of Wally Pfister, who had previously done fine work as Christopher Nolan's cinematographer on films like The Prestige, The Dark Knight and Inception. While it's nice to see that Pfister remains committed to shooting on film (especially when making a movie about the dangers of the digital age), the movie rarely looks distinctive (and its chief recurring special effect – involving a form of digital dross – is more than a little underwhelming). Pfister didn't actually shoot the film himself (he collaborated with Hot Fuzz cinematographer Jess Hall, a talented figure in his own right), but it's disappointing that he doesn't seem to have much to bring to the table on an aesthetic level.
It's a little painful to see how many talented people the film wastes in dull roles. Depp is fine during his early scenes, but seems uncertain of how he should play the ghost in the machine. He seems to be attempting to suggest a mostly-robotic figure who retains traces of human emotion, but he often comes across as merely bored or disinterested. Hall delivers the film's best performance, effectively selling the distress she feels as she sinks into an ever-deepening moral conflict. She does her best in her scenes with Depp, but you can't help but wish he were giving something – anything – to work with. Elsewhere, Paul Bettany (A Beautiful Mind) and Morgan Freeman (The Shawshank Redemption) play fretful scientists, Kata Mara (House of Cards) plays a terrorist and Cillian Murphy (Batman Begins) plays an FBI investigator. All four of these folks are talented, but here they're reduced to uttering tiresome exposition or serving up banal speeches about ethics.
Most of Transcendence is merely dull – a blandly-written talk-a-thon that eventually transforms into a blandly-staged action movie – but I'm a little bothered by how eagerly it casts the world's most aspirational dreamers as well-intentioned villains who need to be put down for the good of society. It has empathy for the love Will and Evelyn share (and the film's closing scenes attempt to persuade us that what we've been watching is first and foremost a love story), but not enough empathy for his ideas. It suggests that our most gifted scientists are little more than false prophets; seductive cult leaders promising a better future while guiding us into the abyss. Sure, okay, but in order to make the argument, it makes a group of violent, technophobic ideologues look rational, sane and even heroic in comparison. Given a choice between panic-stricken murderers and a sentient A.I., I'll take my chances with the god-robot.
Rating: ★ (out of four)
MPAA Rating: PG-13
Running Time: 119 minutes
Release Year: 2014