In many ways “Transcendence” is a movie about man vs. machine…a very smart machine in the form of artificial intelligence. Directed by Wally Pfister and written by Jack Paglen, “Transcendence” is set in the not too distant future.
When the film begins, the U.S. and probably the world, is Internet fee. A catastrophe of some kind has wiped out the ability to use the Internet, wifi, and all the devices dependent upon such technology. The movie goes back five years so we can find out what happened and why. There, in the Berkeley area, we meet two married scientists, Will and Evelyn Caster (Johnny Depp and Rebecca Hall). They are both proponents of pushing the AI envelope…seeing how far science can take us in replicating thoughts, ideas, tissues and cells. Think a combination of “Her” and “The Six Million Dollar Man,” but on a much grander scale.
The film raises some interesting issues—certainly there are benefits to all this technology, but what happens when man’s bad impulses begin to outweigh man’s goodness. That’s the concern of a group led by Bree (Kate Mara). Early on in the film, a member of her group does something drastic which sets the wheels in motion for the rest of “Transcendence”–a showdown of man vs. machine.
With all the talent assembled for “Transcendence,” one would think this movie would be better. It just goes to prove that if it’s not on the page, no amount of good acting can breathe life into a film. Johnny Depp gets top billing, but in reality this movie belongs to Rebecca Hall. She’s a good actress and does what she can, but doesn’t have enough with which to work. Depp is absent from too many scenes and, for the most part, when he appears it’s via screen within a screen. Paul Bettany (who’s in the film more than Depp) and Morgan Freeman lend a sense of gravitas to the plot, portraying colleagues and friends of the Casters and act as the voices of reason. Finally, Cillian Murphy is on board as an FBI agent brought in to investigate an incident relating to Will (one can’t help but notice that Irishman Murphy sounds more American than Depp and that seems rather strange).
Maybe we’ve been exposed to too many television programs and movies about AI, but “Transcendence” just doesn’t seem to have any mojo. It falls to earth with a thud.