‘Transcendence’ Review

Smart but muddled film misses the mark

Johnny Depp as Will Caster in Alcon Entertainment's sci-fi thriller "Transcendence." / AP
• April 18, 2014 5:00 am

Transcendence’s biggest problem is that it isn’t quite sure what it wants to be. Part brainy thriller, part action sci-fi, part extended Jesus allegory, and part love story, it adds up to a mushy mess that is relatively entertaining but fails to leave an impression.

Will Caster (Johnny Depp) and his wife Evelyn (Rebecca Hall) are at the forefront of artificial intelligence research. He’s a reluctant rock star, signing copies of Wired that bear his mug; she’s a dreamer, a believer in the power of AI to transform not just humanity but the planet itself. The pair is busy attending a fundraising event when Will is shot with a polonium-tipped bullet by a radical neo-luddite.

The assassin is a member of Revolutionary Independence From Technology (RIFT). His attack is one of several simultaneous hits around the country. AI researchers and their labs have been targeted for destruction, as RIFT takes a rather apocalyptic view of artificial intelligence’s ability to impact the world.

Will, slowly wasting away from radiation poisoning, works with Evelyn to upload his consciousness to an immensely powerful proto-AI that the couple created. With the help of their friend and scientific partner Max Waters (Paul Bettany), the project is a success.

Or is it? Max, whose writings about the need to treat AI warily helped inspire the radicals of RIFT, believes something is amiss. Have they recreated their friend on a quantum hard drive? Or has the quantum hard drive itself evolved into something else?

It is clear that writer Jack Paglen has done his homework when it comes to "the singularity," the speculative moment when machines are supposed to become self-aware and begin to outpace their creators. He is well versed in both the promise and the peril of AI, his script reflecting the ideas of evangelists such as Ray Kurzweil as well as those of skeptics such as Michael Vassar.

Moviegoers familiar with this literature will find amusing references throughout. For instance, while on the run from RIFT, Evelyn checks into a hotel under the name Turing—a reference to Alan Turing, for whom the Turing Test (a method of determining the sophistication of a computer program’s intelligence) is named.

Another scene plays out a rudimentary version of the AI-Box Experiment, in which a dangerous AI attempts to convince its creator to connect to the Internet, thus letting it out of the "box" and into the world, where it can never be recaptured.

Still, I wonder whether audience members who are not as nerdy up on this debate as I will be able to follow some of the film’s action. Scientist Joseph Tagger (Morgan Freeman) and FBI Agent Buchanan (Cillian Murphy) show great concern when it is revealed that the Casters have mastered nanotechnology, but other than a cursory mention about the potential for doom, it’s never really explained why nanotech could be a disaster for humanity.

Indeed, all we are actually shown are the positive possibilities of technology: following his resurrection in digital form, Will is able to heal the lame and give sight to the blind. When Agent Buchanan gasps "Jesus Christ" after he sees the reborn Will (whom he thought to have died years before in the RIFT attack), it comes across as more than a random exclamation of surprise.

The film’s deeper conceits are somewhat hobbled by the needs of Hollywood. Hence the military-style assaults in the film’s final act and the slightly cheesy CGI showing the nanotechnology’s ability to regenerate not just melted steel but also human flesh.

Transcendence’s intellectual reach exceeds its grasp, and while the effort is appreciated—it is a markedly smarter effort than most big-budget fare—that dichotomy between ambition and results only makes the film’s failure to pull it all together all the more frustrating.

Johnny Depp gives his best and least-mannered performance in years, one made all the more interesting by the fact that for much of the film he exists as little more than an image on a screen. And first-time director Wally Pfister, Christopher Nolan’s longtime cinematographer, has constructed some striking images: The opening scenes in a post-tech wasteland where laptops are useful as little more than doorstops stand out. It’s too bad the story he and Paglen tell doesn’t hold together.