TRANSCENDENCE is one of those science-fiction works you foolishly allow yourself to get excited about because a whole lot of smart, talented people are involved in its conception and execution. The pedigree includes executive producer Christopher Nolan, first-time director (and Nolan's constant director of photography) Wally Pfister, and actors Johnny Depp, Rebecca Hall, Paul Bettany, Morgan Freeman, Kate Mara, Cillian Murphy and Clifton Collins, Jr., to name a few. Even the concept is intriguing: what if one of the world's most authoritative minds on artificial intelligence is able to have his memories and mind placed online, where he could have access to literally everything to world has to offer?
But wait, you say, a scientist putting his brain on a computer? Didn't I just see that as a subplot in the new CAPTAIN AMERICA movie (and a few other films dating back to the 1980s)? Yes and yes, but Dr. Will Caster (Depp) is no ordinary scientist; he's someone who believes that such an achievement can lead to giant leaps in research, medicine, security and many other things useful to human kind, far away from the prying eyes and weaponizing hands of the government and military. He would be the first computer with an emotional core, which was kept in check (in theory) by his loving wife Evelyn (Hall) and best friend Max Water (Bettany), both scientists as well. Dr. Caster calls this state of computer-human mind meld "transcendence," and what could possibly go wrong?
If you're thinking this set up sounds fairly cool, you'd be right. The opening of the film, which involves an assassination attempt on Caster's life by an anti-technology group led by Mara's Bree. And while the assassin's bullet only grazed Caster, a toxic coating finished the job with enough of a delay to set up the wires necessary for his mind to be digitized. His reveal as a voice (and eventually a face—lord knows a film that paid a lot of money for Depp to be in it will not go without showing his face) coming from a computer screen is fairly dramatic, even if it resembles what goes on in Her just a little bit too much. That's one of the biggest issues I had with TRANSCENDENCE; it resembles too many other things. A view of the world that bookends the film is ripped right from NBC's terrible series "Revolution," for example.
Perhaps the most shocking element of this film is how quickly it falls into familiar action-movie, low-grade sci-fi patterns. Naturally Caster's logical mind takes over and makes decisions about controlling human behavior that might be perceived as dangerous (because it is). Using nanotechnology to aide in healing humans rapidly, Caster chooses to leave the nanos inside patients so he can control them or heal them instantly. There are even nanos in the very fabric of his laboratory buildings and the solar panels that provide them energy. If one gets knocked down, they simply rebuild themselves in seconds.
Waters becomes so terrified of what is transpiring that he joins the protesters and gives them enough information about the facilities to stage a raid. What this means of course is that a fairly intelligent idea about mind-controlled computers becomes a dumb action movie with a few special effects to make things visually interesting. And then there's Depp's performance. Even as a living, breathing person, he's a bit too knowing and aware of his own coolness. When someone at a conference asks him if he's trying to create God with his computer, his well-rehearsed counter is so obvious that we know from the start that any computerized version of Caster will lose itself in its own power and possibility.
The biggest disappointment about TRANSCENDENCE is that it's a lost opportunity to really dig into and debate the issues brought up in this story. Of course there should be conversations about how linked a computer should ever be to the human brain, about a sentient machine with the ability and access to control the world around it. Screenwriter Jack Paglen is a name I'm not familiar with, other than work he's been reported to be linked to in the near future. I've seen his named connected with PROMETHEIUS 2 (he's since been replaced on that) and even a film version of the "Battlestar Galactica" series.
And while his script for TRANSCENDENCE seems thoroughly researched, it's focused on the wrong things. Too often, the story gets lost in the love story between the Casters, and quite frankly it slows down and interferes with the narrative to such a degree that it became beyond frustration, bordering on infuriating. There was never a doubt in my mind how this would end up, and how/if the potential threat would be neutralized. This film isn't a maze or puzzle; it's a straight line from Point A to Point Boring.
The rest of the cast is fine, I guess, but seeing Freeman and Murphy on hand made it clear that Nolan called in a few favors to boost the famous faces in the film. I keep coming back to how utterly flat Depp becomes as the computer version of Caster. He's not meant to play it as a robot; he's meant to be an emotional being, and my guess is that a computer would attempt to approximate the appropriate emotion in certain situations. But not this one. He's as one-dimensional as the monitor he appears on. TRANSCENDENCE is a great-looking film, but beyond that and a strong opening, it doesn't have the staying power to be anything close to impressive.