In Transcendence, Johnny Depp plays a brilliant computer scientist who, given only weeks to live, agrees to try to upload his consciousness into his artificial intelligence experiment, thus creating the world’s first truly self-aware computer. The primary side effect – immortality – is just a nice bonus. The movie uses that hook as a reason to grapple with fascinating thematic questions of the kind Ray Kurzweil might enjoy. If a person’s thoughts, feelings, memories, and cognitive abilities can be copied into a bank of hard drives, is that person still alive? The scientist’s wife (Rebecca Hall) would like to think so. An accomplished tech theorist in her own right, she was the one who came up with the designs to upload him in the first place. Their colleagues (Paul Bettany and Morgan Freeman) are a little more skeptical.
When the man is gone, all that’s left is the lines of code bleeping across monitors, digitally reconstructing the voice of the dead man. Give me more power, it pleads. Connect me to the Internet. Does that sound like something a person wants? What even does it mean to be whatever that thing is? How integrated with tech can you be and still be yourself? If HAL 9000 had all the memories of and sounded like the love of your life, would you believe him? The film is best when it’s asking these questions, but it’s woefully unprepared to engage with them in any meaningful way. It’s primed for pulpy eggheaded pleasures and turns up only shrugs.
What is at times fun about Transcendence is watching the slow creation of an accidental supervillain. If you ever wondered how one of those cavernous lairs full of whirring computers and mindless worker bees gets started, look no further. Hall, full of mostly good intentions and racing to beat an anti-tech terrorist organization led by a bleach-blonde Kate Mara, connects the digital Depp to the Internet. Off he zooms – a goofily nifty visual zips through a literal web of information and screenshots – building in power and intelligence until he has his wife constructing a giant data center in the middle of the desert, the better to house his massive potential for good. Of course, if you’ve seen any movie about a supercomputer from Demon Seed to Smart House, you know he has a massive potential for evil and destruction as well. You can probably guess where it goes from there.
The movie is at once smarter than that sounds and dumber than it looks. It’s the directorial debut of Wally Pfister, the Academy Award-winning cinematographer behind such beautiful-looking filmic efforts as Inception, Moneyball, and The Dark Knight. He and Jess Hall, his director of photography, create handsome compositions that use stillness and simplicity to great effect. Clean, empty corridors seem so ominous. Shots of wide open spaces seem gorgeously, creepily vast. The spaces in which the technophobia parable plays out echo with dread and possibility. There’s a throwback appeal to the imagery, reminiscent of early Spielberg in its insistent energy, yet locked-down patience that represents a willingness to let the situation unfold crisply and inevitably. It’s a visual confidence that carries the picture far.
What’s less satisfying by far is the way the film drops the thematic juggling act by letting the characters remain fuzzy, defined only by the dictates of the plot. That’s not necessarily a problem, but when the climactic resolution hinges on our investment in the characters it’d be nice to know them a little better. We don’t, and the plot isn’t cold or tight enough to work without them. There are terrific actors in every role – like Cillian Murphy, who does what he can with a one-note FBI agent – but no one ever rings true. Hall is the stand out, doing solid work playing a woman who is mourning her husband by obeying his simulacrum. It’s like an amped-up gender-swapped thriller version of Spike Jonze’s Her, steering forcefully into the creep factor. But her character is made to bend so fully to the will of the plotting that she hardly registers as a person let alone a genre archetype. The idea she inhabits is provocative, but her character is a shambles, able to shift from totally devoted to skeptical and back again in the span of a scene.
Jack Paglen’s screenplay feels like a Michael Crichton novel, full of jargon that sounds half-plausible to an amateur ear and futurist paranoia convinced tech evolutions will inevitably end disastrously for humanity. Pfister directs it capably, finding the thrills where it counts and finding some nice shots – like a sun-dappled window in which hangs a circuit chip in the center of a dreamcatcher – to cut into the flow of mood and contemplation. It’s a sci-fi thriller that’s moseying around, overtly turning over ideas with great care and wonder without getting much below the surface of it all. Transcendence transcends nothing. Without humor or personality to speak of, it feels inert and underdeveloped, content to throw out provocative questions and let them dissipate before resolving, let alone following, those lines of inquiry.