Dr. Will Caster (Johnny Depp) is the foremost researcher in the field of Artificial Intelligence, on the verge of creating a sentient machine capable of assimilating all recorded information to boast the total knowledge of every human who’s ever lived. Hasn’t Man always strived to create God? he asks one morally aghast detractor, and is promptly shot by anti-technology extremists.
Caster dies, but not before he oversees his scientist wife (Rebecca Hall) and best friend (Paul Bettany) in the feeding of his own brain into the machine. At first everything appears rosy, with computer-Caster promising to cure Alzheimer’s while plugging into security cameras all across America to clean up the streets like some sedentary RoboCop.
But then he crosses moral lines aplenty and even turns dozens of people into a regenerating army with a collective consciousness (don’t ask).
Christopher Nolan’s DoP of choice, Wally Pfister here makes his directorial debut with a splendid-looking sci-fi thriller that seeks to reconcile brain and brawn – rather like Inception, The Dark Knight Trilogy, et al. It’s a talky affair that inevitably features much staring at screens and tapping of keyboards, and it’s eager to ponder such big questions as the nature of consciousness and the existence of the soul while also acting as a meditation on love and loss.
To their credit, Pfister and screenwriter Jack Paglen throughout retain an ambivalence regarding technological promise versus peril, but the musings are surface-deep and second-hand. Worse, for a movie that grows ever more ludicrous – science-fiction turns to science-fantasy turns to science-WTF! – it’s oddly monotonous.
Transcendence is, at tin heart, a B-movie with zombies, explosions and a bad robot, but with its event-movie budget and heavyweight cast (Nolan regulars Morgan Freeman and Cillian Murphy are also on board) it strives for po-faced significance when it should be cutting loose.
The action, when it does arrive, is limited to a few bangs that Michael Bay wouldn’t accept from his Christmas crackers, and Depp fans are likely to feel short-changed. Yes, it’s a role that at last sees him play an ordinary man, replete with cardigan, ‘tache and tortoise-shell spectacles, but it mostly requires just his face on a screen.
For a reported $20m fee, it’s hard not make jests about him Skypeing in his performance – especially given he indicates higher intelligence and lost humanity by delivering a flat, emotionless vocal.
Pfister should be applauded for making a non-franchise property with ideas and aspirations but Transcendence is nowhere near as grand as its title. Gleaming visuals aside, it’s a disappointment.