Science fiction thrillers that try to predict the future can open doors to scary possibilities. In ‘Transcendence,’ the story tackles the concept of artificial intelligence that runs amok. It was done brilliantly in 2013’s Oscar-winning hit ‘Her’ starring Joaquin Phoenix falling in love with his computer operating system. Unfortunately, the same cannot be true for Wally Pfister’s directorial debut, ‘Transcendence.’ Pfister is best known for his work as Christopher Nolan’s cinematographer in ‘Inception’ and the Batman trilogy. There has to be a certain degree of ‘suspension of disbelief’ in the story to keep the audience interested. Sadly, the plot is so illogical throughout the film that it gradually loses its enjoyment and becomes a chore to watch.
It’s not that ‘Transcendence’ is a visually bad film. On the contrary, Pfister knows how to put some powerful images on the screen. Cinematically, it is a feast for the eyes that raises the age old question of whether computers have the potential to lead to the downfall of humankind. The major flaw to the film is the screenplay by Jack Paglen. The story is told in a flashback. Knowing the outcome from five years earlier takes away a bit of the suspense. It’s so muddled at times that when things really get out of control, it’s too late to care. Pfister uses such an effective visual in the opening of the film that it weakens the tension later to come. Essentially, we get a lot of special effects thrown in without a big pay off in this cautionary tale.
Johnny Depp plays Dr. Will Caster, a hip scientist that is an expert in the field of artificial intelligence. He is developing a computer nicknamed PINN that has the fast-evolving potential to supersede the intelligence of mankind. In a lecture, he explains that this moment in time will be known as transcendence. Will and his wife Evelyn (Rebecca Hall), also a scientist, are close to making a supercomputer with a conscious. When the scientists ask the computer if it can prove it is self-aware, the system jokingly responds back, “Can you?” When a cyber-terrorist group led by bleached-blonde Kate Mara destroys a key computer research facility at Lawrence Livermore Laboratory, another terrorist grazes Will with a bullet laced with radiation. His prognosis is terminal when the doctor gives him only a few weeks to live. In a last-ditch effort to save him, Evelyn employs the help of fellow scientist Max (Paul Bettany). Before Will dies, they encode his brain functions and download them into the PINN servers. This allows his consciousness to live on after his physical body dies off.
On paper, it sounds like a great start to a good science fiction thriller. Evelyn tries her best to say in love with the hologram images of her late husband Will. As Will’s power grows, it’s obvious that his wife is blinded by the loving memories of her husband. The government gets involved as well as another colleague of Will’s Joseph Tagger (Morgan Freeman). Freeman is once again typecasted in the level-headed wise man role. As Will and Evelyn takeover a small California town and build an underground data center, we see where this is going. The problem is that even with a solid cast and great concept, Pfister is missing the tension and pacing that Christopher Nolan accomplishes in his films. The virtual lover is a fascinating notion to ponder but never achieves the emotional magnitude of Spike Jonze’s ‘Her.’
The most disappointing aspect of the film is Johnny Depp. Without a doubt, he is one of the best character actors of his generation. However, he is miscast as the scientist. Many Depp fans will stop here and give him the benefit of the doubt in this role. It’s hard to swallow him as one of the smartest men in the world when he gives his TED talk on artificial intelligence. He is so good in so many quirky films such as ‘Benny and Joon,’ ‘Edward Scissorhands,’ ‘What’s Eating Gilbert Grape,’ and ‘Pirates of the Caribbean.’ It certainly would be a treat if Depp would take a break from mainstream Hollywood films and get back to his indie roots. ‘Transcendence’ scores a disappointing C. Check out the official trailer http://youtu.be/QheoYw1BKJ4.