'Transcendence' raises questions it can't answer
‘Transcendence’ raises questions it can’t answer

“Transcendence” is a movie with a message, and it’s got some really serious things to say about technology. Unfortunately, those things are all over the map and it goes on to prove that if you insist on being heavy-handed it helps to at least pick a side.

Johnny Depp stars as Will Caster, a scientist at the forefront of artificial intelligence research. One day Will is shot with a poisoned bullet by some anti-technology terrorists and in order to save his life, his consciousness is uploaded to a computer by his wife Evelyn (Rebecca Hall) and his buddy Max (Paul Bettany).

Science fiction has grappled with conscious computers for a while now and from HAL 9000 to The Lawnmower Man to Skynet to The Matrix things have not gone all that well.

We can feel pretty confident we know where all this is going. Max is kidnapped by the techno-terrorists and eventually rallies to their cause after Evelyn and Digital Will scurry off to a forgotten desert town to kick start a new world order.

With several million dollars at their disposal thanks to some light stock-market manipulation, Evelyn and Digital Will construct a massive underground lab where DW begins to make massive technological strides, including nanotechnology that heals the sick and simultaneously converts them into mindless drones in DW’s network-controlled army.

As to what DW’s ultimate goals are, well the movie sits on that until the very end where it is all revealed to be incredibly sloppy means to a questionable end.

“Transcendence” seems to be simultaneously making a case for and against technology, and while this level of ambiguity can be compelling in a good movie, in a lousy one it just winds up being frustrating.

There are some really big questions being batted around here: like what, if any, is the difference between digital consciousness and our own, or what happens when technology begins to develop at a rate faster than our ability to understand it?

This silly little movie is in no way equipped to answer these questions so instead, it tries to distract us with some nifty special effects and some anti-climactic action sequences.

“Transcendence” marks the directorial debut of Wally Pfister who has dutifully served as Christopher Nolan’s long-time director of photography. So as you would expect, the movie looks great. But Pfister poorly attempts to imitate Nolan’s trademark mix of atmosphere, thematic depth, and straightforward entertainment.

Of course, he’s not really getting much help here either. Depp seems barely able to muster up the energy to care as years of playing amped-up cartoon characters seems to have made playing actual humans (or even digital replications of ones) incredibly dull.

Even stalwarts like Morgan Freeman, who has a supporting role as one of the Casters’ collaborators, seems to be unsure what he’s supposed to be doing here.

The only person able to mine anything interesting from this film is Bettany, who ranks as one of the most misused and underappreciated actors working today. Come on Hollywood, free Paul Bettany!

This is a wondrous and disorienting age we live in as we all struggle to keep up and make sense of the staggering technological strides humanity has made over the past few decades. I hate to be the one to tell you this “Transcendence,” but you’re not helping.

“Transcendence” is rated PG-13 for sci-fi action and violence, some bloody images, brief strong language, and sensuality.

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