With Johnny Depp, Rebecca Hall, Morgan Freeman, Paul Bettany, Kate Mara. Directed by Wally Pfister. Written by Jack Paglen. Rated PG-13 for sci-fi action and violence, some bloody images, brief strong language and sensuality. 119 minutes.
TRANSCENDENCE is an intelligent, complex movie about artificial intelligence that delves deep into some of the issues the overrated “Her” only touched on. You spend much of the time wondering who you’re supposed to be rooting for, and that’s the point. This is a film with no easy answers.
Will and Evelyn Caster (Johnny Depp, Rebecca Hall) are a husband-and-wife team of scientists. They’re trying to create a self-aware computer. As Will points out at a scientific conference at the beginning of the film, the journey is much more interesting than the goal because of the potential for discoveries along the way. It is at this point that he is shot by a member of a terrorist group attempting to destroy everyone and everything involved with the research. To try and save him Evelyn and their colleague Max Waters (Paul Bettany) upload Will’s consciousness into a supercomputer.
It is here where viewers have to start choosing sides. Does the experiment work? Evelyn believes her husband is alive within the computer. Max believes that Will is dead and that whatever the creature in the computer is, it is not only not Will but constitutes a dangerous threat. The terrorist group (led by Kate Mara), wants to destroy it while a scientist (Morgan Freeman) cooperating with the government investigation becomes increasingly concerned about where things are heading.
Meanwhile, in his new incarnation, Will has spread through the Internet, amassed the money to fund his projects, and directs Evelyn to a small town where he plans to construct the facilities he needs for his research. Eventually, through the use of nanotechnology, he is able to repair shattered bodies, bring sight to the blind, and perform similar miraculous feats. He says he wants to make the world better. Others fear he’s trying to take it over.
It’s a fascinating premise, and Christopher Nolan’s cinematographer, Wally Pfister, makes an assured directing debut here. (Nolan was one of the film’s executive producers.) It’s only in the last act where it falters. Perhaps they feared that having, say, Will and Max debate over the world Will wants to bring into being wouldn’t be dramatic. Instead, the two sides make their cases separately, without the chance to pick apart the other’s arguments. Screenwriter Jack Paglen seems to have been trying for a variation on “Colossus: The Forbin Project” (1970), another film about a sentient computer that struggled at the box office yet is now considered a classic. It, too, had an ending that disturbed some viewers.
Nonetheless, the movie is engaging on a number of levels, from Depp not hiding under layers of makeup and reminding us that he really is a good actor, to Pfister’s visual compositions, such as Evelyn’s living quarters at the computer complex. It also touches on one of the high tension points in modern life: whether science is our benefactor or a potential threat. Arguments are made on both sides, and the viewer is left to decide.
Ultimately, though, “Transcendence” is a commentary on the American movie business. Here is a serious science fiction movie that makes you think. Naturally, it is released in April. The next few months will be given over to comic book superheroes, monsters, giant robots, and a variety of blockbusters and would-be blockbusters. For the most part, it’s serious thought we’ll be transcending at the movies in the months ahead.•••
Daniel M. Kimmel is a veteran movie critic and author of a host of film-related books. His most recent book is Shh! It’s a Secret: a novel about Aliens, Hollywood and the Bartender’s Guide. He lives in Somerville, Massachusetts.