Directed by Wally Pfister
Written by Jack Paglen
Cast: Johnny Depp, Rebecca Hall, Paul Bettany, Morgan Freeman, Kate Mara, Cillian Murphy, Cole Hauser, Clifton Collins Jr
Johnny Depp is a wonderful actor, but he has been in some very high-profiled stinkers in the last couple of years. Sadly, Transcendence does nothing to buck that trend. Depp doesn’t embarrass himself quite as bad as he did in Dark Shadows or The Lone Ranger, but it’s doubtful many of his fans will remember this film fondly either. The visuals are done well but it fails at every other level. Transcendence has no shortage of ambition but it lacks the originality, heart or intelligence for the ambition to amount to anything.
Dr. Will Caster and his wife Evelyn (Rebecca Hall) are among the leading scientists in the research of artificial intelligence and appear to be the verge a major (though vague) breakthrough. However, shortly after making a speech about the potential that can be reached with artificial intelligence, Will is shot by a member of an anti-technology terrorist group called RIFT. as part of an extended effort to put a stop to his research. While Will survives his gunshot wound, the bullet he was wounded with is laced with radiation, leaving him with only weeks to live. In a desperate effort to save him, Evelyn and their friend Max (Paul Bettany) upload his consciousness into a computer and unsurprisingly chaos ensues.
Once Max has finally taken a second to think about the moral implications about what they have done, he insists that the program in the computer isn’t Will. I have no idea if that’s true or not because we get very little time to get to know Will before becoming a computer, and even then he never seemed to have much of a personality to begin with. We’re not given much information about Will or a reason to find this guy interesting, making it very hard to know or even care if he’s the same guy in the computer.
As much as I love Depp as an actor, he does not give a good performance here. His delivery is almost robotic throughout the film, which is almost excusable while in computer form, but even when he’s still human he puts very little emotion into anything he says or does. This makes things especially hard on Rebecca Hall since, despite her best efforts, Depp gives her next to nothing to work with. As the film goes on, it becomes painfully clear that Hall puts much more effort into the film than Depp.
Also not helping matters is that the two have very little chemistry, making it increasingly hard to believe that these two love each other enough for one of them to do something as ethically questionable as turning your spouse into a machine. The script tells us on almost a regular basis that Will and Evelyn are in love but very little of that translates to the screen thanks mostly to Depp’s wooden acting. In short, if you’re going into the theater for Johnny Depp, you will likely walk out disappointed.
Of course, none of this is nearly as aggravating as the scenes with RIFT. Given the direction the film takes, it seems like we’re supposed to sympathize with them, but they do absolutely nothing worthy of that sympathy. Some exposition from an FBI Agent tells us they’re horrified by how reliant society has become on technology but they have no apparent hesitation on using said technology to accomplish their goals. We’re also told they despise social media because it’s an invasion of privacy, but then twenty minutes later they use a computer to trace where Evelyn is hiding.
Oddly enough, no one seems to notice the irony. They try to recruit Max into their cause, but when he refuses they simply kidnap him and wait for Stockholm Syndrome to kick in. When it becomes abundantly clear that Computer Will has something dangerous planned, they say they have to make their move quick. This apparently consists of hiding in a cave for the next two years and printing some flyers.
They are quoted from their manifesto that they see artificial intelligence to be an abomination which is what motivated them to assassinate Will. Why they didn’t bother targeting Evelyn is anyone’s guess. By Will’s own admission, just before he gets shot, Evelyn is much more invested in applying artificial intelligence to change the world which means she should be seen as just as big of a threat as Will, if not more so.
Transcendence tries to pass itself as imaginative but there’s very little if anything here that hasn’t been done before and done better. I guess in a way it’s fitting that a film that tries showing how the advances of technology can cost us our humanity feels almost lifeless. If you absolutely have to see something with artificial intelligence, save your money here and wait for Her to come out on DVD instead.