In the slack and dozy sci-fi drama Transcendence, Johnny Depp speaks in the same mechanical drone when he’s human as when his consciousness exists only as a series of bits and bytes. Depp is Dr. Will Caster, an artificial-intelligence researcher who has already “uploaded” the mind of a monkey to a supercomputer in his lab. When he’s shot by an anti-AI terrorist group, Will’s mind is likewise digitally preserved, and he gets his partner and wife Evelyn (Rebecca Hall) to put him up on the internet, as though he were a kitten video someone could post on YouTube. Gee, does that mean Will is responsible for the recent Heartbleed virus?
Transcendence is a goofball futuristic think piece without an eyedropper’s worth of (intentional) humor in it. The well-meaning Will, it turns out, loses his humanity once he dies and is reincarnated as a ghost in the machine. He games the stock market to bankroll a vast facility to pipe more power into himself. This power he uses to work on nanotechnology that saves people’s lives but also connects them to his consciousness. In his delusions of benevolent AI godhood, Will doesn’t realize he’s ramping up to a planet entirely jacked into himself — and, oh yes, he’s starting to pursue the new hobby of creating humans.
This would all fit better in a Wired op-ed than in a movie, especially one that loses track of its protagonist so quickly and focuses on the various people, including Evelyn, who debate over whether Will should be stopped or, indeed, can be stopped. The debaters also include Morgan Freeman and Paul Bettany as fellow researchers and Kate Mara as a dour leader of the anti-AI movement. We’re meant, I think, to be frightened by Will’s overstepping human ethical bounds, but Depp stays so bland throughout that Will never really seems a threat. And the script, by Jack Paglen, short-circuits itself by beginning five years after the movie’s events, effectively spoiling its own ending.
This is the directorial debut of Wally Pfister, who served as cinematographer on almost all of Christopher Nolan’s films (Nolan takes an executive-producer credit here). Usually cinematographers-turned-directors at least manage a decent-looking first film, but Transcendence is drab and grayish, with occasional abstract images of rain falling (to be fair, this does assume some thematic relevance later) but otherwise as grim as a London afternoon. The movie has zero momentum or urgency — somewhere around the one-hour mark, we get a title declaring “two years later,” and we sink into our seats and wonder why Will’s facility has been allowed by the government to continue unimpeded for two years. The forces gathered against Will are amazingly ineffectual and dithering. They seem to let things go so far because if they didn’t it would be a short movie.
The dullness reaches new lows during the climax, which involves gunplay yet manages to be anticlimactic, with Evelyn begging Will to upload her into the system so she can plant a virus there. Will’s minions, all of whom have been healed by his nanotech, fall to the bullets and are never heard from again. What happens to, say, the blind guy whose sight was restored? Does he die a blind man? Does he die at all, given that the virus shuts down every computer on earth (again, this isn’t a spoiler, due to the idiotic opening scene)? Or does the nanotech heal the bullet-wounded before the system shuts down? Transcendence ultimately has less regard for common humanity than its putative hero-turned-villain ever does. It says that the lives saved by technology, and the countless lives blighted by the global blackout, mean nothing, and government agents and terrorists unite against a demigod that never seems that bad. The movie’s message is as muddled and scrambled as Will’s source code.