Directed by: Wally Pfister
Starring: Johnny Depp, Rebecca Hall, Paul Bettany, Morgan Freeman, Cillian Murphy
Rated: PG-13 for sci-fi action and violence, some bloody images, brief strong language and sensuality
“Transcendence” is one of those films that wants to be thoughtful and profound and leave the audience questioning their interpretation of the film. Unfortunately, it’s more likely to leave the audience questioning what the hell they just saw. Not only does it get wrong some science so basic even your average cell phone user will spot the problem, it makes us doubt every single character’s interpretation of events without giving us the knowledge we need to sort out who’s right.
The story starts with a post-apocalyptic Berkeley. Max Waters (Paul Bettany) searches for the home of his friends Will and Evelyn Caster (Johnny Depp and Rebecca Hall) and narrates for us the tale that started five years earlier, when anti-AI terrorists blew up several labs and poisoned AI researchers. Will was one of those researchers, and was shot after a presentation on the possibilities of artificial intelligence.
When it becomes clear Will isn’t going to survive, Evelyn and Max copy his brain into a system previously used to house a highly advanced AI. Once Will dies and the copy starts to communicate, Max questions how much is Will and how much is the AI that was in the system before him, while Evelyn believes it’s all Will and banishes Max for doubting. He winds up a captive of RIFT, the terrorists who carried out the anti-AI attacks – they are interested in him because of the essays he’s written questioning whether technology is all good.
As is inevitable in a film like this, the copy is soon growing in power and creating nanobots that can repair any injury, revive any plant, and grant humans incredible strength and resilience. Those humans are also networked to the copy, so that it can control their actions when it wants to. Sure, the nanobots can reverse pollution and heal the earth, but they also turn humans into computer-controlled puppets and can reproduce indefinitely.
At this point the film devolves into utter irrationality, and the science runs even further off the rails. The credits listed a pair of professors who were tech consultants on the film, and one wonders if the filmmakers listened to them at all. Sure, RIFT uses copper mesh to create Faraday cages, structures impermeable by electronic signals… but a major part of the film’s conclusion is reliant on a Faraday cage that is only shielded on its roof. Apparently nobody told the director about cell and wifi signals that can travel horizontally.
There’s a lot to like about “Transcendence.” Johnny Depp delivers his most deadpan performance since “Edward Scissorhands.” Rebecca Hall is solid as the true believer who is eventually pushed so far even she begins to doubt. The supporting cast includes not only Paul Bettany, but also Morgan Freeman and Cillian Murphy, so you know the acting is good. It’s a promising idea, and many interesting conversations are available to be had about how the film could have done better.
What ultimately makes the film fall apart is that we are never given enough information to make a decision about whether the machine “really” is Will or not. The characters argue about it constantly, clues are given for both sides of the argument, and while it becomes clear that the post-apocalyptic world we saw in the beginning was an inevitable result of stopping the machine, it’s never clear if we’re supposed to think it was worth it. Worse, the tone of the film is inconsistent with this lack of clarity.
Sure, it’s possible to leave viewers doubting a film’s conclusions – “Inception” is a masterful example of this, with a rock-solid ending which is undercut in literally the very last shot. It works because the theme of rock-solid knowledge being undercut was established early on, so the audience is primed to interpret things that way. “Transcendence” lacks that internal consistency.
Whether you’ll enjoy “Transcendence” or not depends on how tolerant you are of movies that ignore science and assume you are too stupid to spot it or too amazed at their brilliance to care. If you’re one of the people who hated that the X-Files movie included bee-pollinated corn, do not see this film. If you loathe movies that squander their potential even more than movies that are just bad, do not see this film. If, however, you just want to kill a few hours and watch pretty people talk about computers, you might have a reasonably good time.