Bizarre in all the wrong ways, amounting to a bug in your brain. Transcendence is an artificial intelligence yarn about taking a dying man’s brain and uploading his consciousness to a high-tech processor and computer. Not only can Dr. Will Caster (Johnny Depp) flourish eternally, the new melding of intelligence has perfected cell regeneration so organisms can live forever. But the problem is with how the movie is done. None of the actors have any chemistry with each other, there is blabbering on ethics that go on and on, the anti-technology extremists don’t really say anything cogent, and the muddy desaturated colors suck out the life from the screen. It also doesn’t help that the ending is something of a flip-flop on what it is trying to say about the nature of Dr. Caster’s emotion and soul.
I don’t think that the script was a bad idea, it’s interesting but terribly unpolished. Wally Pfiister, a longtime cinematographer for Christopher Nolan movies, makes his scattershot directorial debut and my advice to him next time is to work on the casting and to excise all superfluous characters from the script. I mean, really. What the hell is Cillian Murphy doing here as an F.B.I. man? What the hell is Morgan Freeman doing here as a benevolent scientist? I swear they are just standing around accomplishing next to nothing, and as for the latter, this is the first time I’ve wondered if Freeman understood the movie he was starring in.
I can’t put my finger on why Rebecca Hall is wrong as Dr. Caster’s wife Evelyn and successor in scientific research, she is too passive, morally upright and earthy to be obsessed with solving complex algorithms, I think. She is last to understand that advanced artificial intelligence would make humans obsolete in the world. How about Paul Bettany as a colleague with lots of snappy criticisms of Dr. Caster’s work, why does he gab at others in ways that make him sound self-absorbed? Bettany only manages to distance himself from the audience’s understanding. Hell, how improbable do these actors look standing next to each other! I can’t imagine them standing around each other at a Hollywood cocktail party, I’d think they would all rather interact with their cell phones instead.
Right now I want to tell you I saw the film with three friends who liked it, leaving me the only one who didn’t like it. We had coffee afterwards and then a lugubrious debate on Dr. Caster’s motives. “He had GOOD INTENTIONS!” my friends exclaimed. I’m sorry, he had intentions, but they were all bad intentions. Basically the philosophy, as I took it, is that humans should be removed for good so Earth can be saved, and that all living survivors should be turned into drones (i.e. hybrids of flesh and computers, Clifton Collins, Jr. as one of them). I attempted to tell my friends that the issue of the movie is that Dr. Caster is no longer a soul within the computer, that with no emotion his programming is simply trying to calculate ways to dominate the world. Like I said, bad intentions.
But hold on, the movie wants to have it both ways – Dr. Caster’s soul (and body!) must make a return! After an hour of insipid talk and meetings between Evelyn and numerous other characters warning her to disconnect from her project, the movie comes alive visually in the climactic desert scenes where the hybrids and their regeneration methods fight against the human rebellion, that has echoes of “Terminator 2: Judgment Day” and “Inception.” Only, I am wondering, why is there still only one F.B.I. man and only a small military outfit trying to infiltrate Mr. and Mrs. Caster’s science lab facility? Well, it is “off the grid” and I suppose, hard to find. Oh, I’m sorry, a select small military outfit is all the extremists could manage to pair up with. But why try to shoot at Dr. Caster from afar, why not engage a conversation with him? Did they all see the computer gone amok climax in “Superman III” and fear that would happen to them if they got too close?
The more I think about it, the more I realize how riddled with holes and basic storytelling logic “Transcendence” is marred by. I’m all the more turned off by the ending in which I have to listen to more of Bettany’s mutterings for voice-overs. You would hope at least that Depp would at least bring depth to his role but he brings nothing but equal numbness to his human portrayal and to his ghost in the machine. I was quite shiftless in my seat watching this failed flick, and I was all the more jumpy during coffee. I didn’t want to argue anymore to spoil the movie for my friends. I attested to leave my ranting here, for you.
119 Minutes. Rated PG-13.
SCI-FI & FANTASY / TEENS & UP / LATE NIGHT HEAD SCRATCHER
Film Cousins: “Brainstorm” (1983); “Strange Days” (1995); “The Matrix” (1999); “A.I.” (2001).