In a world that relies more and more on technology and technological advances, playing on the fears of what can go wrong is easy. Writers have literally done it since the dawn of time. There are even cave drawings in France showing fire going wild and destroying everything.
In the new film, Transcendence, Johnny Depp leads an all-star cast that tries to answer the question, what is the worst that could happen if AI becomes sentient? Depp plays Dr. Will Caster, a leading authority on all things computer and part of a think tank of geniuses working on creating the first sentient computer, a singularity that can think on its own and make decisions based on morality and human emotions.
Caster is married to Evelyn (Rebecca Hall), who is also part of this think tank, and their best friends, Max Waters (Paul Bettany), Thomas Casey (Xander Berkeley) and Joseph Tagger (Morgan Freeman) have all contributed to the singularity, but when a anti-tech terrorist group called RIFT attacks them, killing Casey and shooting Will with a radioactive bullet that slowly kills him, the entire world of these geniuses is thrown into chaos.
Will, Evelyn and Max scheme to implant Will’s brain into the AI before his body dies, even though it breaks all laws of ethics (and science). What could go wrong? Apparently, everything. Once Will is one with the AI, he achieves Transcendence–hence the title–and strives to make the world a better place, no matter the cost.
Transcendence asks some very real, very scary questions in regards to technology and how it is slowly ruling our day-to-day lives. Unfortunately, the script by Jack Paglen doesn’t go far enough and completely cops out in the third act by trying to make this cautionary tale about technology run amok into a human story with heart and soul. And it ends up pulling the entire film off the rails and into a train wreck.
Wally Pfister, Chris Nolan’s (Inception; The Dark Knight Trilogy) long time cinematographer, gets his first shot to direct and the results are decidedly mixed. The special effects take over Transcendence midway through the film, to the point that it becomes a distraction. Pfister also intercuts the film with random shots of nature–a blade of grass here, a blooming flower there, drops of rainwater running down window panes–as a juxtaposition to the rampant technology at play everywhere else in the film. As a plot point develops late in the second act, it almost seems like Pfister was about to tie it all together, but the story falls apart before that happens.
The cast is peppered with name actors in very small roles. The aforementioned Xander Berkeley (Candyman; TVs 24) is on screen for less than 10 seconds with no lines. Lukas Haas (Witness; Inception) has a small role in the beginning, and Cole Hauser (Pitch Black; Olympus Has Fallen) shows up late in the film with zero exposition.
Kate Mara (American Horror Story; the upcoming Fantastic Four reboot) plays the leader of RIFT but we are never told why she hates technology so much–hates it enough to kill people for it. Cillian Murphy (28 Days Later; Inception; Batman Begins) plays an FBI agent investigating RIFT, and by the end of the film, he and Morgan Freeman’s characters are running military sorties against the Will Caster A.I., which really explains how far the film fails in its last act.
The acting is good, for the most part, as Depp plays Will almost robotic when we first meet him to help the transition once he becomes a computer program. Rebecca Hall (The Town; Closed Circuit) is the soul of Transcendence, but Pfister and Paglen ask way too much of her, and by the end, seeing her emote on screen becomes an insipid exercise. Paul Bettany (Legion; Priest; The Da Vinci Code) is the hero of the film, and he does what he can to keep the story grounded, but by the end, he and his talents are overcome by mediocre writing.
Transcendence asks–and answers–some interesting questions, but ultimately, it devolves into drive-in quality science-fiction schlock and will soon be forgotten. Good performances from decent actors can’t save a script that was broken to begin with, and Wally Pfister’s directing debut is essentially dead on arrival, which is a shame as the ideas here could have been developed into a really fine and terrifying film.
Transcendence is rated PG-13 and opened in theaters nationwide on Friday, April 18.