2.5 out of 4 stars
While there have been dozens of films that have explored the possible downsides of the Internet, few have done so with more balance and plausibility than the first half of “Transcendence.” For one solid hour this film delves into the pros and cons of artificial intelligence (AI) from a multitude of moral, ethical, religious, political and financial perspectives and does so with blinding efficiency and a minimum of cinematic ballyhoo. Then, like so many like-minded productions before it, the bottom falls out.
The greatest thing about sci-fi movies from a creative perspective is that there are no rules or boundaries until they are established by the filmmakers. You can get away with virtually anything you want provided you adhere to the limits and conditions you yourself establish at the onset. This may sound easy to do but very few sci-fi flicks ever pull it off.
Dramatic friction is established quickly when a well-organized band of cyber terrorists attack a half dozen U.S. cities in a violent protest that claims dozen of lives and severely disables the top AI research facilities. Dr. Will Caster (Johnny Depp) — the acknowledged leader in the AI field — is severely wounded, which leaves him, his wife/colleague Evelyn (Rebecca Hall) and their close associate Max (Paul Bettany) just enough time to salvage the guts of their super computer and download Will’s brain onto the Internet before he passes away. If you think you’ve been given too much information or had the plot spoiled, you haven’t; all of this takes place in the first 30 minutes and there are many more surprises and twists to come.
Benevolent and altruistic as a human, Will’s personality changes radically once he becomes what is more or less a cyberspace entity and most of these changes take place in Evelyn as well. When they started their work years earlier it was their goal to rectify the damage to the planet caused by man and make advances in the medical field and that is exactly what they continue to do, at least on the surface.
The first of several narrative hiccups comes in the middle of the second act when writer Jack Paglen moves the story up two years, which starts the dominoes tumbling. Something that takes place with Max earlier goes from entirely believable to beyond far-fetched and Paglen’s original concept falls to the wayside in lieu of bits and pieces of other sci-fi films. To his credit, Paglen pinches from many classics (“2001,” “Invasion of the Body Snatchers,” “Westworld,” “Blade Runner,” “Avatar” and “The Matrix” among others) and for younger audiences these wrinkles will appear to be fresh as a spring morning but for anyone of a certain age or a passing knowledge of the sci-fi milieu it will feel painfully recycled.
“Transcendence” marks the directorial debut of the highly-respected, Oscar-winning cinematographer Wally Pfister and his eye for detail and framing prowess are beyond impressive. Dividing screen time equally between interior and exterior settings, Pfister balances the sleek and pristine with the rough and grungy with seamless precision and his pegging of his frequent co-worker Jess Hall to be his director of photography was spot-on. From a technical perspective, “Transcendence” is a unqualified masterpiece.
Given the immense promise of the first half, the second portion of the film can’t help but come across as a huge wasted opportunity and a squandering of one of the best approaches to the current state of modern technology that seems to grow at a rate most people find daunting and, yes, threatening. In an early scene one of the characters comments that the Internet was created to make the world smaller and bring people together more easily. In this movie and in the real world, the opposite seems to be taking place. We’re connected now more than we’ve ever been and with each passing day our relationships with other humans become less spiritual and physical and more distant, brittle and sterile. (Warner Bros.)