'Transcendence": Insufficient, Vexing Take on A.I.'s Danger

Directed by: Wally Pfister; Runtime: 119 minutes
Grade: C-

The cast brought together for Transcendence plays like reunion of sorts for the supporting players in Christopher Nolan's oeuvre -- Rebecca Hall! Morgan Freeman! Cilian Murphy! -- gathering together with cinematographer from Memento and Inception, Wally Pfister, for his grand directorial debut. To say that he's picked a subject for his unveiling that's both ambitious and overdone would be an understatement: the translation of an organic mind into a digital format, and how the replication could prove problematic when the data starts to think, evolve, and take initiative. Enormous promise lies within the notion explored by this Johnny Depp vehicle, from the ethical boundaries crossed by creating a proxy for a person's consciousness to the practical possibilities unlocked by an artificial intelligence working to break mankind's limitations. The problem? Pfister's pedestrian direction, coupled with a rote and stiffly-conceptual script, reduces the material into a drab cautionary mindboggler without the proper substance to lend weight to its timely ideas.

Depp stars as Will Castor, a proponent and researcher in the field of artificial intelligence who's absorbed by the concept of a technological singularity -- or, what he calls "transcendence" -- the (dangerous) point when a self-aware computer exceeds the capable processing power of the human brain. While his agenda naturally garners the positive attention of forward-thinkers, including his loving wife Evelyn (Rebecca Hall) and best friend Max (Paul Bettany), he has also expectedly earned the scorn from those against the creation of hyper-advanced digital life, including the extremist anti-tech group R.I.F.T., or Revolutionary Independence From Technology. The group's resistance to his school of thought erupts in a series of terrorist attacks that level research branches across the globe, as well as an assassination attempt against Will that, through radiation poisoning, leaves him with a little over a month to live. Desperate to preserve him and his knowledge, Evelyn and Max reluctantly decide to take the research to the next level ... by uploading Will's consciousness.

Will Castor, as presented by the ever-subdued Depp, comes across as a dry, nondescript genius and quasi-celebrity, which both plays into the intentions driving Transcendence and frustrates in the process. There's little separating the actor's typical mannerisms -- low-key and aloof -- and the character he's portraying, rendering static sequences where he chats with his devoted wife and gives a talk at an independent TED-like financier event. It doesn't help that Castor gets swept up in screenwriter Jack Paglen's hamstrung plotting towards his digital transition, swapping out some of the nuance in the topic's ethics and feasibility with the time-sensitive desperation in getting the forward-thinker's mind in the digital sphere before he expires. His meek behavior becomes an ambiguous element of the story once his consciousness goes online, yet it leaves one wondering whether the film might actually be more intriguing and pertinent had Castor been a more discernible and engaged personality.

What's frustrating about Transcendence is that the theories underneath Castor's transition are incredibly interesting on-paper, seen in motion once his presence crosses the digital threshold. Ideas are introduced about what'd happen if the upload of one's consciousness was in any way incomplete, whether their personality remains as a "ghost in the machine" after the transition, and how an unleashed, Internet-connected AI with specific personality and morality objectives would hand self-preservation ... and self-improvement. These aren't new concepts, of course, but they're becoming increasingly relevant with technology's advancement in the field, and they provide compelling science-fiction contemplations once the story gets beyond the tech used to make it possible. The combination of the script's cursory touches on that material and Pfister's protracted direction, however, delivers them in a dull and reflexive fashion, forcing the underlying gray-area themes -- both about the development of the Castor intelligence and the terrorist resistance to it -- to lose their assurance.

Transcendence's big disconnect lies in a void of emotional resonance from the perfunctory characters, where director Pfister relies too much on the concept to drive itself, closely mirroring -- and more accurately representing -- some of the criticisms lobbed at Christopher Nolan's films. With time, this electronic copy of Castor takes on a life of its own, exacting its own agenda that can be interpreted in a number of ways, both benevolent and malignant. A neutral adversary that's so clinical needs some kind of personal perspective interacting with it to bolster the film's philosophical intentions, yet the bond between the intelligence and Evelyn hardly goes beyond her grim compliance and quietly emerging fear. Rebecca Hall musters an enigmatic and slightly empathetic presence as Castor's wife, whose despair over her husband's state understandably justifies her loyalty at the surface; however, the machinations of the eerily monotone proxy of Castor overbear the glimmers of intimacy between them, forcing the angle to be superficial storytelling instead of expressively dynamic. Everything else built around the situation is just as flaccidly one-note, from R.I.F.T.'s luddite agenda to the FBI investigation into their operations.

Under better circumstances, perhaps the shallowness could be excused in support of Transcendence's focus on the complexity and threat of Castor's escalating abilities itself, as the script takes some fantastical licenses with leaps in science -- across a healthy jump in time -- that shape him into an almost God-like entity. What occurs in the second half while exploring this possibility, however, borders on abuse of Arthur C. Clarke's laws of science-fiction, where the application of things such as nanotechnology, organic tissue repair, even artificial weather modification become unjustly interchangeable with magic or with the miraculous touch of a deity, only in the not-distant-at-all future. The situation's common sense slips from Wally Pfister's grasp into a messy mixture of Orwellian dystopia and consequentialism, with only far-fetched contrivances befitting a mindless blockbuster as a means of overwrought escape. It's a shame to see the potential within Transcendence fizzle into the digital ether in such a haphazard fashion, losing track of its deeper ruminations along with its prudence.

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