As a society, we’ve reached a point where the Internet is indispensable. We need it for work and just everyday regular life. We depend on computers more now than at any point in human history.
“Transcendence” is a movie about the digital age and just how far technology can take us as a society. Can artificial intelligence save the environment? Can it advance medicine to a point that there is no longer disease or famine? These are all interesting questions with tricky answers.
Sadly, “Transcendence” answers none of them. It props up several moral and ethical dilemmas, but never delivers anything gratifying.
Johnny Depp plays Dr. Will Caster, a brilliant scientist that has dedicated his life to creating artificial intelligence that essentially has its own free will. He has partnered with his wife, Evelyn (Rebecca Hall), and best friend, Max Waters (Paul Bettany), on this quest.
In the first in a long line of reality-stretching moments, a terrorist group called RIFT attempts to murder Will (done by a fairly unrecognizable Lukas Haas). Will sort of survives the attack, but only in a way that allows him to live for another 30 minutes of movie.
Using a program created by Joseph Tagger (a sleepwalking Morgan Freeman), Evelyn and Max essentially copy Will’s brainwaves into a large mainframe computer in an attempt to “save” him. Once Will is uploaded and “talking”, he immediately demands an internet connection (don’t we all?) so he can have more power and access bank records, security agencies, etc.
Evelyn, a brilliant scientist in her own right, goes right along with this idea, despite Max’s hesitancy. For someone that seems to be very much into critical thinking, she tosses all that out the window so she can simply have a computerized version of her husband, regardless of the legitimate dangers that it creates.
Once RIFT gets wind of this, the anti-technology terrorist group (led by a completely wasted Kate Mara) goes about trying to stop it and attacks Evelyn, abducts Max, and does several things that would upset the NSA.
At this point, “Transcendence” is a decent and smart thriller. Then, things that are impossible to go unnoticed start to happen, such as when Max is abducted by RIFT for several years. It also doesn’t address how Evelyn, led by a fully sentient computer version of Will, gets away with robbing the world blind to fund their massive plans to create the perfect society in the middle of the desert.
“Transcendence” falls apart when it comes time to make ethical choices. Instead of leaving anything up to an audience’s interpretation, this shaky script by Jack Paglen calls in the Marines and it suddenly becomes a Michael Bay movie.
But, the true eye-rolling moment comes when “Transcendence” has the audacity to suddenly throw in a Morgan Freeman voiceover. Anyone that can stay in the movie and not internally mock what they are seeing and hearing is surely not aware of what an Internet meme is.
There is little doubt that rookie director and longtime Christopher Nolan cinematographer Wally Pfister can shoot a movie. This movie relies heavily on effects, but they are never in the forefront, demanding your attention. Every single shot is perfect and massive in scope, even during quiet moments when two characters are simply talking.
For the first time in a long time, Johnny Depp isn’t slumming in a role. He’s initially very charming and quirky (his specialty), but then “Transcendence” wastes all that. He drones on and on about saving people and making the perfect collective society, but there isn’t anything to really care about because it’s being done in such a creepy, emotionless way.
Bettany is the emotional center of the movie, as he is the only character that seems to use the human free will and consciousness that the movie is so obsessed with. Everyone else is on one side of the fence, either against the idea of a computer playing God or for it. Bettany’s Max sees both sides, but knows it can’t swing too far either way.
Not only is Bettany torn in a moral way, he’s emotionally tied to two people that he deeply loves in Will and Evelyn. He really does a fantastic job in a movie that abandons anything that could make an audience care about the outcome for any of the characters involved.
“Transcendence” is a very ambitious movie. It wants to be a thought-provoking thriller that makes you question whether or not a perfect, pristine society is worth losing human free will over. Unfortunately, it gets lost along the way and ditches any and all logic, making it impossible to suspend your disbelief to the degree required.
Essentially, “Transcendence” isn’t thrilling enough to ignore all the preposterous moments that rapidly begin to pile up. A movie doesn’t have to take a stance on the issues it brings up, but it should at least allow an audience to think about it. Instead, “Transcendence” says forget all that and let’s all live in caves because dealing with these dilemmas is just too darn hard.
Own “Transcendence” on Digital HD now and on Blu-ray Combo Pack and DVD on July 22nd.