Many have been referring to Transcendence as a remake of The Lawnmower Man, although the two movies are only similar to the extent that both feature a man who basically becomes a world-threatening computer program. That, and they both weren’t too well received.
Something often brought up by those who study artificial intelligence is The Singularity, which is a hypothetical moment in time when artificial intelligence will have become more advanced than that of humans. In Transcendence, Johnny Depp is trying to make this a reality by inventing a computer that is, in most regards, sentient. As par for the course, things get out of hand.
The movie opens in a not too distant future where technology appears extinct. Narration by Paul Bettany informs us that this is the aftermath of an experiment, started 5 years ago by his best friend and fellow researcher Dr. Will Caster (Depp). Will and his ever supportive wife Evelyn (Rebecca Hall) have been working to create a computer capable of self-awareness, which would be they key to even greater intelligence amongst computers. However, R.I.F.T. (Revolutionary Independence From Technology), an extremist group opposed to the idea of a world ruled by technology, doesn’t like this, and so members of the group shoot Will with a radioactive bullet that slowly kills him.
With the help of Max, Bettany’s character, Evelyn tries to save Will by uploading his consciousness onto the almost self-aware computer they’ve been working on, which seemingly works just fine. But Will needs more power and before the R.I.F.T. agents get a chance to stop Evelyn, she connects her husband to the Internet, where his conciousness now resides. We then make a somewhat sudden jump ahead in time. Will is now the main computer of a secret underground lab in the desert that specializes regenerating human tissue and cleansing water using nanotechnology. So, now the movie is about Will’s ability to control nano-particles and use them to connect himself to – and thus also control – humans and even nature itself. Evelyn starts to wonder if she’s done the right thing. Gee doc, ya think so?
In supporting roles we have Morgan Freeman as the Casters’ friend and colleague Joseph Tagger, Cillian Murphy as an FBI agent trying to stop Will from going “too far”, Clifton Collins Jr. as a desert townsman who helps keep Will and Evelyn’s new lab under wraps, Cole Hauser as a military officer, and Kate Mara as the leader of R.I.F.T., which later ends up having to work alongside Murphy’s team to take Will down.
Many of these characters are interesting, some less so. As for performances, one of the best is probably Paul Bettany. I am more torn when it comes to the leads. Rebecca Hall I did like but her American accent needs work and while this certainly isn’t the best I or anyone else has seen from Johnny Depp, he still had his moments, especially when his transformation into a computer began. The scene where Evelyn and Max first try to communicate with Will’s uploaded consciousness is a splendidly chilling moment!
This is the first directional effort of Wally Pfister, frequent cinematographer of Christopher Nolan films, and in multiple ways, it shows. The editing is sometimes clunky and the action scenes aren’t first-rate, yet I must admire the skill Pfister has for setting a tone and using visual effects to create memorable shots. Nolan he is not, but he might get there.
In the end, I found myself enthralled by Transcendence and even if I was at first baffled by the switch of focus from A.I. development to nano-technology, I found myself liking the “mind-controlling nano-particles” story a significant deal more than that of Depp’s transformation into a supercomputer. The entire first act feels like it would have worked better as a prologue that only serves to explain the existence of Computer-Depp and then the rest of the movie could have been about how Depp’s new form and supreme intelligence was used for a greater good that would eventually become a greater evil, i.e. the whole thing about nano-technology. Or something. I dunno.
Overall, one can easily tell that what we have here is a beginner’s work, but as a first effort, one can still enjoy it for what it is. I give it Thumbs-up and 3 out of 5 whatevers.