Transcendence opened today. Not quite with a thud but almost. Johnny Depp has little to do except think, dream, die – and once that’s done, then the whole process begins again. Think of the fact of men, machines, and God; then roll them into one entity – as in sort of a new wave trinity, then upload this new being to the Internet, and you have a transcendental event or the theme of this film.
Now this film may sound as something provocative, or important, or even worthy of your time, money, and consideration. But really it isn’t. While not quite as numbingly bad as Depp’s turn as The Tourist in 2010, this is a film with little action, so-so dialogue, and a lot of philosophizing about the current natural order of things, and a new way to make sure everything runs smoothly.
Depp’s character Dr. Will Caster is not quite saying – We have met technology, and now we are technology. But that’s what the film is about. You see, as one of the world’s foremost authorities on Artificial Intelligence, Caster is set on building the ultimate Siri. Only he’s not talking about a mobile phone – instead he’s filled with terms like nannites, neural networks, AI, and more of the same.
Of course there are opponents. To wit, an anti-technology faction with Kate Mara as the Queen Bee called Bree. She’s not the least bit like a physical bee, but don’t be fooled, she can surely sting as she’s the head of the opposition.
Now Caster has his allies as well. One of which is his wife Evelyn, played nicely by Rebecca Hall, another is Max Walter played by Paul Bettany, and a third is a think tank buddy/colleague/fellow scientist called Joseph Tagger and Morgan Freeman has the role.
So as the film begins we find the earth is mostly powerless, and since this is the case – we are back in the dark ages literally. We are told that Denver and another city have some power, but that is it Quickly we flash back five years and Dr. Caster is about to present his findings to an august body of some sort, or at least a packed auditorium, as opposed to a few guys at a corner pub.
He gives his speech and hallelujah, we all should embrace his benevolence and ways and means of not only protecting us from our own follies, but also, by doing so, we, along with AI, shall save the world. As he puts it, Once online, a sentient machine will quickly overcome the limits of biology; in a short time, its analytic power will become greater than the collective intelligence of every person born in the history of the world.
He means that all of that intelligence would now be available to us, and would now be at our finger tips, or actually he means a keyboard.
But then, those bad folks, those anti-technology folks, gun him down in the lobby of the auditorium while he’s signing autographs – yes, geeks have groupies in this film. He doesn’t die of the gunshot. But that bullet was actually a very small projectile that might also be considered a dirty bomb. He’s given four or five weeks to live before he will die of radiation poisoning.
On schedule he dies, but not before convincing his wife, and a somewhat skeptical Max Waters to attach electrodes to his head, and collect, capture, and likely collate – without folding or spindling, everything in his head – this is otherwise known as downloading when we refer to computers. But this is what he wants done – so everything that Caster knows is now collected in various e-folders. And before he dies, he requests that he (his consciousness) be uploaded to the Internet.
Wouldn’t you know it – it works. First we see his ‘presence’ in a typed sentence on the monitor – Is anyone there? And soon, with some easily done programming repairs and housework, we get his voice, then a holographic image of him. He’s alive! He’s alive! Not really but almost.
There’s your set up.
From there the film goes straight down hill. Caster developes delusions of grandeur, the likes of which have never been seen before. The FBI is called in – at least Cillian Murphy as Special Agent Buchanan. The army is called in.
The government must mobilize all its resources to take out Evelyn Caster’s nannite farm out in the California desert. But we see men with hand guns, a few small howitzers, and mortars. We also see long white sterile hallways, five stories below the surface. We see tons of solar panels to harvest the sun’s energy, we see huge rows of servers with the requisite colorful blinking lights. All of which look good, but really don’t advance the story.
While Caster has a bit more substance to him than the HAL computer in 2001, he’s become something of a megalomaniac. His deux-ex-machina can heal bodies, and make things grow – but everything comes out sounding just like Caster himself. People aren’t quite cloned, rather they’re casterized. I made that word up – you won’t hear it in the film.
Meanwhile, Waters and Joseph have turned against him (the horror!). And so forth.
This was a good idea at the inception – by the way – Wally Pfister directed this film and he was the cinematographer for a number of Christopher Nolan films including The Dark Knight, The Dark Knight Rises, and Inception.
I can imagine this film being pitched – Men and Machines. We are them. They are us. Or something like that. Pfister has a good eye, but he should have stayed with what he knows best. This film is almost dull, lacks meaningful action, and is far from the thriller it calls itself. Rebecca Hall is good, but Depp hasn’t much to do. Bettany is also good but this kind of a role is what he does best. You know, as a solid second male lead.
But Morgan Freeman is wasted. Not much to do, and his dialogues, as brief as they are, do little to enhance our appreciation of Freeman the actor, or that of his character. However, old Morgan looks good in aviator shades and a white shrubbery on his chin.
As for me, I think I shall stick with the old-time religion rather than this new-wave theology. Two point seven five out of five. Instead of labeling this one with a recommendation, I’ll call it a major disappointment.