Here’s the basic gist of “Transcendence”: science is bad! Well, in the wrong hands, at least, science is bad. Which, you know, DUH. How is this a new message? And “Transcendence” doesn’t do anything new with that idea, either; the concept that computers that can do anything are problematic has been around for years, and for modern viewers, done in the best way in “The Matrix.” It’s not like “Transcendence” is an action movie like the Keanu Reeves blockbuster was, but boiled down to core ideas, that’s what we’re dealing with here, and it’s nothing that isn’t repetitive.
Or, taken another way, you could consider “Transcendence” a movie about an intelligent, independent, beautiful woman being abused by a controlling husband who won’t let her do anything she wants, is always watching her, and ends up guilt-tripping her into abandoning her own identity. But that husband is in the form of Depp-by-way-of-the-T-1000, that metallurgic villain from “Terminator 2: Judgment Day” that could transform into any form and could outthink and outrun any human. So again, this all sounds very familiar, and not particularly good.
Add in a script where barely any of the science is explained, and people instead throw around words like “microchip” and “nanotechnology” and “virus” instead of actually having real conversations that aren’t just composed of jargon. And then add fantastic actors like Freeman and Murphy standing around for the most part, with nothing to do but gape at Depp on a computer monitor. Oh, it’s just so underwhelming. It’s not even that “Transcendence” is offensively bad, but so thoroughly meh that even getting this worked up about it feels like too much work.
Let’s backtrack: “Transcendence” focuses on genius scientist Dr. Will Caster (Depp, of “The Lone Ranger,” “Dark Shadows,” “Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides,” and “Alice in Wonderland”), who believes that intelligent machines are the future. His life’s work is PINN, a “physically independent neural network” that is a self-sustaining computer; the question is whether the computer is itself self-aware, and how its decision-making should be considered. His wife, Evelyn (Hall, of “Iron Man 3”), is a genius in her own right, a superior computer programmer, and their closest friend, Max (Bettany, of “Iron Man 3”), is a medical doctor who thinks that these advanced applications should be used for neural engineering.
The three of them have different goals: Will is curious to understand how the world works; Evelyn wants to cure the environment; and Max wants to cure its people. But all of their hard work is hampered when an anti-technology group, RIFT, led by Bree (Kate Mara), attacks their labs, kills some of their researchers, and attempts to assassinate Will. As the possibility arises that he may die, Evelyn has an impossible idea: uploading Will’s brain activity, and therefore his consciousness, to the PINN computer. Max immediately fears the thought—“How will you know what you’re dealing with?” he rightfully wonders—but for Evelyn, losing the love of her life isn’t an option.
And so do they do it, and the rest of “Transcendence” is them dealing with the moral and legal responsibilities of that choice after Evelyn and Max have a falling out; Evelyn helps Will’s consciousness try to fulfill his goal of “understanding everything”; and Max joins RIFT to try and stop them. There are time jumps forward; Freeman and Murphy lurking around the edges of the plot as a fellow scientist and FBI agent, respectively; and Hall acting increasingly like a battered wife, and yet the film just digs itself into a deeper and deeper hole of mediocrity.
Let’s list some of the basic plot points first-time director Wally Pfister and first-time writer Jack Paglen never explain: Will is described as “a great mind, a great soul,” but we get two establishing scenes of him as a scatterbrained, snarky scientist, nothing that presents him as a great humanitarian or anything. Will’s consciousness is uploaded online, but how does the neural network actually transfer to a computer system if the body, with its blood, oxygen, heart, and so forth, isn’t connected? When Will creates the “synthetic nanotechnology” material that he uses for his various experiments, what’s it made out of? How does it work? How does it cure people, regrow plant life, clean water? Without any of those explanations, it’s just some pretty CGI and nothing more.
Oh, I’ve got more questions. So many more! But it’s clear that “Transcendence” is not a movie that is actually interested in science or in probing at these queries, but rather in giving us a simplistic “beware our attempts at evolution” message. In presenting Will as someone who immediately becomes consumed by power, by the need to “enhance” and “modify” humans, the theme seems to be, “Even the best among us can fall prey to the evils of technology.” Which, you know, obviously. And you don’t need to spend any money on “Transcendence” to know that.
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