Transcendence raises many ethical questions but doesn’t think to address them. The idea of uploading a man’s consciousness into a fully functional Artificial Intelligence computer, for example, is inspired, but imagine what that does to his libido. How, for that matter, have you erased his need to clear his bowels or his need to eat? He was a married man. Can you imagine what his wife must be feeling to see her husband’s face plastered to a computer screen without the means to touch him?
You probably can, but the makers of this film can’t. Director Wally Pfister and his team seem more than content to let their actors take over what is essentially a laborious trek through a plot that is fed up with the premise it has been given. There is no care given to the humanity of these characters, no respect for their feelings or their decisions within the confines of the narrative. They are written down in the screenplay to carry out certain tasks and to arrive at predestined resolutions, and that is all they do, without a strand of hair out of place. Perhaps the movie’s biggest surprise is that Max doesn’t try to win over a grieving Evelyn. I was almost certain he would.
Max (Paul Bettany) is Will Caster’s best friend, and Will (Johnny Depp) is married to Evelyn (Rebecca Hall). All three are scientists, working, one on top of the other, to come up with clever ideas that will bring technology further. Will’s idea wins out — he has constructed an A.I. machine, called PINN (do not ask me what it stands for), and has his sights set on becoming a technological god. But there is a faction of rebels who believe that the future of A.I. is the beginning of the end of human intellect. A couple of them infiltrate a seminar and shoot Will with a poisoned bullet. In his dying days, Will uploads his consciousness into PINN, with the question raised: How much of PINN remains PINN, and how much of it has become Will? It’s a question Evelyn discards with a shrug. When Will eventually dies and PINN comes alive with Will’s face and voice and his same lack of charisma, Evelyn believes blindly that her husband has been reincarnated. This sets up the hackneyed scene in which Max warns Evelyn of PINN’s falsehood, and Evelyn tells Max to “Get out!”.
But alas, Evelyn should have listened to Max. Before long, Will, through PINN, has taken over the internet. And then he does an inexplicable thing: He develops the ability to heal chronic and terminal illnesses, and even restores broken limbs and reconfigures damaged faces. His master plan, as far as I could tell, is to impart a bit of his consciousness into every person he heals, thus creating an army of super quick, super smart, half-robotic drones for the purpose of world domination. Battling him are Max; Will’s trusted technician Joseph (Morgan Freeman); an FBI agent (Cillian Murphy) who does nothing except run around and duck when explosions are close by; and a small army of rebels, led by an enigmatic chick called Bree (Kate Mara), who must, by law of Hollywood deviant females, look like a goth troublemaker.
Into this great big pot of science fiction these characters go, either aware or fully unaware of the betrayal that’s about to hit them. Depp makes a tired Will, as if he is less than thrilled by the notion of spending most of the movie behind a TV screen. His relationship with Evelyn requires effort to believe. And it is beyond reasoning why so many characters have a stake in a story that could easily have survived on two.
Wally Pfister is one of this generation’s most gifted cinematographers. He has shot most of Christopher Nolan’s films and has created beautiful images with his camera, but I fear directing is not for him. What prompted him to take this project on, especially with Nolan releasing a new film later this year? Sure, Transcendence looks smart and confident, but beneath all that is a vacuum in which very little happens to very expendable characters. I was this close to walking out of the movie, because I felt nothing for anyone, and was insulted by its arrogance. You cannot trick the audience in this day and age, not like the Lumière brothers could trick their audiences in the late 1800s with moving trains. People know what movies are, and they know when a movie is bad.
Best Moment | Nope.
Worst Moment | Every time Evelyn ignores sound advice in favour of misguided love.