It is interesting that critics have nearly universally panned “Transcendence”, considering the last time a human fell in love with a piece of artificial intelligence onscreen it was Joaquin Phoenix in “Her”, and they all nearly universally loved it.
The love story of “Her” certainly felt artificial, but at least that film made an attempt to sell it. Evelyn and Will Caster(played by Johnny Depp and Rebecca Hall) are a happily-married couple sharing in each other’s life work, but this does not make them unique. What makes Evelyn unique is how quickly she seems to throw ethical behavior completely out the window when it comes to keeping her husband's 'memory'(like computer memory, get it?) alive.
Will Caster believes in the next evolution of artificial intelligence, called ‘transcendence.’ Naturally, this idea of creating an artificial god makes more than a few people nervous, like the clearly-unstable man who shows up at a tech conference where Will is speaking(no red flags went off with security?). As Will is leaving the conference, he is shot by the man. With Will’s life hanging in the balance, Evelyn and the Casters’ confidant and colleague Max Waters(Paul Bettany) decide to upload Will’s conscience to use as a template for a new artificial intelligence. She thinks this will somehow ‘save’ him, even though shortly after this 'a-ha' moment she’s dumping Will's ashes at the lake. Maybe she herself just rented “Her”, and thought that would work out long-term. Maybe she fell asleep part of the way through.
This is about the time that Depp begins phoning in his performance – literally. For a good portion of “Transcendence”, Depp isn’t even onscreen in a physical form; the viewer either hears him or sees his image on a computer monitor(you could almost see the umbrella from his cocktail glass as he shot those moments from his vacation home). Depp certainly has first billing on the film, but he may just have the least amount of screen time.
When the upload of Will’s conscience works, the first thing he does is steal a bunch of money so Evelyn can flee the radical group(led by Kate Mara, who doesn’t do a whole lot but scowl with a lot of eyeliner on) chasing her. Strangely, Evelyn doesn’t stop to question this, and doesn’t really seem to care. It becomes hard to identify with Evelyn at this point. It’s easy to understand that she loved her husband, is still mourning and wants to keep him alive in any way possible, but there are a lot of crimes committed before she stops to think, ‘hey, maybe this isn’t such a good idea.’
An even better head-scratcher is why the FBI never seems to question why Evelyn suddenly seems to come into a whole lot of money. They show up to investigate the radical group, but don’t really seem to mind that Will’s conscience hacks their machines. Even if Morgan Freeman assures them(in his iconic, soothing voice) that the hacking is only trying to help, they would probably still be a little upset. Another completely inexplicable scene is when the head FBI agent(a totally underused Cillian Murphy) meets up with an army colonel(Cole Hauser). Hauser’s character is never really introduced, and the scene feels a little extemporaneous. It's as if it is just there to give Hauser a little more screen time. The moment almost screams, 'Ladies and Gentlemen, Cole Hauser!'
Wally Pfister is a fine cinematographer, shooting many of Christopher Nolan’s films(the director served as executive producer on “Transcendence”), and that skill carries over into his directorial debut. But aside from some up-close sunflower slo-mo, there aren’t a lot of wow-factor shots to behold here. An IMAX ticket seems like a waste of money, especially with the bleary, dreary digital camerawork early on that makes things feel like the projector is out of focus.
So without much to look at, what’s left? “Transcendence” is a film packed with intellectual characters, but not one of them seems to have a lot of intelligent things to say. The plot just has one too many holes, kind of like the beloved sweater that is still so comfortable, but it’s questionable whether or not anyone should be seen in public still wearing it. “Transcendence” seems like a pretty great idea with a pretty great cast that just never manifested itself fully. Thought-provoking science fiction this is not.
Truthfully, the best science fiction film out right now is one few probably have heard of(it certainly doesn’t have any primetime TV spots). “Under the Skin”(which stars Scarlett Johansson) is the type of sci-fi flick audiences will long to dissect and discuss immediately after taking it in. “Transcendence” leaves the viewer thinking that they really don’t care whether they see the film again, and that is just not right.