There is a collision between mankind and technology at the heart of Transcendence, a “brainy” thriller about artificial intelligence in the Inception mode (N.B. Christopher Nolan is the film’s executive producer; his longtime cinematographer Wally Pfister makes his directorial debut).
After an opening set five years in the future, where keyboards are being used to hold doors open, the film flashes back to the night when Evelyn Caster (Rebecca Hall) urges her scientist husband Will (Johnny Depp) to attend a symposium where they can secure funding for the next five years of work. Will and his fellow scientist Max (Paul Bettany) talk at the conference about using technology to heal the planet, end poverty, and cure cancer.
However, a neo-Luddite cell, R.I.F.T., led by Bree (Kate Mara) has a plan to foil such actions. Computer labs doing A.I. work are destroyed, and Will’s health is compromised as well. Eventually, Will’s brain is copied onto a hard drive, creating an ersatz version of Her, where Evelyn is in love with her virtual husband whom she can see on various screens everywhere, and he can monitor her emotional state.
But is this virtual Will “real”? Max does not think so, and he is kidnapped by R.I.F.T. and possibly brainwashed. Meanwhile, Evelyn follows Will’s advice to go “off the grid” and she moves to Brightwood, a desolate desert town where–viewers, suspend all disbelief—she creates a giant underground laboratory that eventually creates nanotechnology to repair and regenerate damaged cells. Soon, a man beaten within an inch of his life can recover overnight, and after a needle in the eye, blind people can see!
Transcendence has much on its mind, and it boasts some pretty nifty special effects, but the film’s point is muddled. Will’s efforts to heal are hindered by the questions of is “he” real or not, and what are his real motivations? The R.I.F.T. folks seem to want to kill the Internet, but mostly to stop Will from gaining additional power. If the film is trying to be a cautionary tale, it is unclear what it is warning viewers about.
Moreoever, as the good guys and the bad guys come into conflict, and folks can be regenerated, Transcendence starts going into zombie film mode. The genre shift, as well as the unconvincing love story between Evelyn and Will seems synthetic, suggesting that the film was also made in a lab.
Depp is fine in his literally two-dimensional role, which requires very little from him. Hall struggles to carry the film. Primarily because her character has to both explain what Will is doing to the other characters and the audience—e.g., “He’s reordering his own code!”—and then react to what she says. No wonder she stares wide-eyed at the camera through much of the film. Bettany tries to supply nuance in his pivotal role, and to his credit, he is more successful than Morgan Freedman who shows up from time to time to guide the characters and the plot.
Ultimately, however, Transcendence achieves a deeper meaninglessness.
Transcendence opens today in Philly area theaters.
Author: Gary M. Kramer
Gary M. Kramer is a Philadelphia-based freelance writer. He is the co-editor of Directory of World Cinema: Argentina. Volumes 1 and 2, and teaches seminars at the Bryn Mawr Film Institute. Follow him on Twitter @garymkramer.