Transcendence descends into a tech quagmire

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Johnny Depp defies death via artificial intelligence in order to save the human race in Transcendence.
Photo: Warner Brothers. Johnny Depp defies death via artificial intelligence in order to save the human race in Transcendence. Photo: Warner Brothers.

One of these days someone is going to have to write a movie that explores—purposely—the irony of making a film that uses cutting edge technology to tell an anti-technology story. Transcendence is not that movie. Its storyline, character arcs, and politics are so hopelessly muddled, it’s unclear what its makers were thinking. In fact, there’s so little resembling an understanding of human emotion that I wonder whether it was written by computers trying to approximate the human experience.

Will Caster (Johnny Depp) and his wife Evelyn (Rebecca Hall) are brilliant scientist types. He wants computers to do something revelatory—it’s never made clear what—and she wants to use technology to change the world for the better.

One thing that’s clear is that there’s an anti-technology movement trying to stop their work. After giving a lecture, Will is shot by a would-be assassin. The wound appears minor but it turns out the shooter (Lukas Haas) dipped the bullet in some kind of chemical that gives Will fatal radiation poisoning.

Evelyn, along with her friend and colleague, Max (Paul Bettany), has a solution to save Will: Upload his consciousness to a computer. They do it. The results are disastrous (natch).

Along the way, Evelyn and Max’s purposes diverge. He thinks the technology is dangerous and tries to shut Computer-Will down. Evelyn kicks him out of their lab because she’s a woman and prone to letting her emotions get the better of her (I doubt that’s the intention but misogyny doesn’t have to be intentional). With Will’s now-sentient computer mind, she sets up shop in a dying town in the middle of nowhere. There she and Computer-Will start working on nanotechnology that will not only improve the physical constitution but will also connect every human’s brain to Computer-Will so the human race can evolve.

It’s not a bad concept, but the execution is just plain silly. For example, a group of anti-technology terrorists led by Bree (Kate Mara) kidnaps Max, beats the hell out of him, and then somehow convinces him to join their movement.

Then there’s Joseph Tagger (Morgan Freeman), a colleague of Will’s whose purpose is hazy; he and Human-Will had been working on nanotechnology, but his role in bringing Will back to Earth is unnecessary. Max can do everything that Tagger can do (and more).

Eventually, Computer-Will tries to take over the world. That’s how it goes in movies like this, as if there’s some sort of rule: Computers only want to kill us (see also the superior films The Terminator, 2001: A Space Odyssey, and Danny Boyle’s Sunshine).

One could make the case that it’s delightfully subversive that the terrorists are the good guys, but they’re pretty rotten people. Plus, they use state of the art technology to thwart technology. The paradox!

Finally, Transcendence is director of photography Wally Pfister’s directorial debut. It’s a shame that a DP with such a great track record—Pfister shot the beautiful-looking Moneyball and The Dark Knight series, among others—has made a movie that looks dark even when its characters are standing in the middle of the sun-bleached desert. Transcendence is a total misfire.

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