By NATHAN LERNER
The futuristic, sci-fi flick, “Transcendence,” explores artificial intelligence and the uncertain, evolving boundaries between humanity and technology. What makes us human and distinguishable from advanced forms of artificial intelligence?
Will Caster (Johnny Depp) is the world’s preeminent authority in the field of artificial intelligence. He propounds the notion that computer-based artificial intelligence has the capacity to become sentient and attain transcendence. This cerebrotonic theoretician remains studiously detached from the pragmatic consequences of his postulations. His wife, Evelyn (Rebecca Hall), best friend, Max Waters (Paul Bettany), and colleague, Joseph Tagger (Morgan Freeman) are part of an intellectually vibrant community of fellow computer scientists.
R.I.F.T. is a group of anti-technology terrorists, who oppose what they regard as the perils of artificial intelligence. As leader of these neo-Luddites, Bree (Kate Mara) is presented as a cartoonish figure, tattooed, emaciated, wild-eyed, and spewing anger. The caricatured depiction of Bree and her compatriots telegraphs to the viewer that these are the bad guys and that their opposition to artificial intelligence is without any rational basis. They launch a series of assassinations against various computer scientists, including Will. Although Will survives the shooting, he is wounded with a bullet laced with radioactive polonium. Death is inevitable.
Evelyn discovers research, in which the brain of a rhesus monkey has been uploaded onto a computer. Max counsels Evelyn not to upload Will’s brain, albeit to no avail. When Will dies, his grief-stricken widow preserves his mind by uploading it onto a super-computer PINN (Physically Integrated Neural Network). Emancipated from his physical form, Will’s persona is abruptly transmogrified from benevolent soul to a power-mad maniac, intent on taking over the planet. So, maybe those anti-technology activists weren’t so wrong after all.
The film is saddled with an inane storyline by first-time screenwriter, Jack Plagen. The actions of the characters are ludicrous. This is epitomized by a vignette in which the purportedly brilliant Evelyn is negotiating with a contractor (Clifton Collins, Jr.). She invites him to rip her off by telling him that no bid would be too high. This woman is a genius? The film is compromised by a panoply of other more substantive incongruities and implausibilities. These are fraught with absurdity, but cannot be discussed without plot spoilers.
In the lead role, Depp is subdued. If you are expecting the sort of over-the top performance that he has provided as such memorable characters as Captain Jack Sparrow in the “Pirates of the Caribbean” franchise or as Tonto in “The Lone Ranger,” you will be profoundly disappointed.
Although Depp provides the film’s marquee value, the pivotal role is that of his widow. She must struggle with the challenge of how to cope with her late husband’s resurrected form. Does she still love him? Does she support his vision of the human condition? The character must necessarily be the point of identification for the audience. Unfortunately, Rebecca Hall lacks the slightest scintilla of warmth as an actress. She is woefully ill-suited to the role. As a consequence, it is difficult to empathize with her character’s dilemma.
Paul Bettany is the film’s voice of reason. Bettany is a fine actor, but the screenplay leaves him little room to display his thespian skills. The always reliable Morgan Freeman as well as Mara, Collins, Cillian Murphy (as an F.B.I, agent) and Cole Hauser (as an army colonel) are also stuck in thankless, underdeveloped roles.
After broaching some fascinating issues early on, the film never addresses them. Indeed, the film abandons its initial thrust in favor of an oddly conceptualized love story between Evelyn and her now megalomanical, non-corporeal paramour. Think of Spike Jonze’s “Her,” stripped of its jocular tone and infused with a depiction of darkest view of human propensities. The film’s iconography seems ambivalent, regarding the salient issue of artificial intelligence. The result is dramatically and intellectually unsatisfying.
**1/2 PG-13 (for sci-fi action and violence, some bloody images, brief strong language, and sensuality) 119 minutes
Nathan Lerner welcomes feedback at firstname.lastname@example.org.