What a mess! And yet I enjoyed it far more than Winter Soldier.
Transcendence stars Johnny Depp as Dr. Will Caster, a brilliant scientist who is making significant progress on artificial intelligence. At the beginning of the film, he warns a conference audience that an online sentient machine would have greater analytical power than the collective intelligence of every person who has ever lived. By the laws of film foreshadowing, we just know we are about to see what that looks like.
But first a terrorist organization trying to protect humanity from the potential dangers of a.i. tries to kill off all the scientists working on it, including Will. Will suffers a fatal wound but his death is postponed long enough for his wife, Evelyn (Rebecca Hall), a brilliant scientist herself, and closest colleague, Max (Paul Bettany), to upload his brain into a computer. Max has serious misgivings about this and tries to keep Evelyn’s expectations in check, reminding her that whatever they uploaded is not really Will.
The terrorists are also brilliant and soon hunt Evelyn down, but not before she connects ‘Will’ to the network. As you can imagine, things move quickly downhill from there.
The plot holes in Transcendence are big enough to swallow one of those mega-aircraft carriers in Winter Soldier. Indeed, the film’s flaws make Winter Soldier look like a four-star classic. For example, the terrorists are clearly portrayed as having their hearts and minds in the right place and having very legitimate concerns about what Will and Evelyn are doing. But the first thing we see them do is ruthlessly slaughter a bunch of ‘innocent’ scientists. This inconsistency is pointed out in the film, but that doesn’t help us develop the least bit of sympathy towards these terrorists. Then there’s the mysterious two-year period when ‘Will’ is setting up an underground mega-complex in New Mexico. The terrorists know ‘Will’ is there but inexplicably do absolutely nothing about it during that two-year period – that’s just plain stupid writing. The film also suffers from a lack of story-flow, with many isolated scenes and dialogues that seem to come out of nowhere (i.e. lack a context). Then there’s the science (what there is of it), which feels pretty weak. As for the acting, well, the best I can say is that, outside of Hall, none of the acting was noteworthy (Morgan Freeman and Cillian Murphy are also along for the ride). And finally there’s the ending, which requires some kind of subtitles to understand. Conclusion: what a mess!
And yet, for largely inexplicable reasons, I frequently found Transcendence to be thoughtful, haunting, beautiful and entertaining. Maybe that’s because it had so many theological and moral implications, giving us not only a clear Christ-figure, but also a God-figure. If a good person is given absolute power, what will that lead to? What are the real dangers of artificial intelligence? Lots of good questions with very ambiguous answers.
Transcendence had the potential to be a great film, but the rookie writer and rookie director were clearly not up to the task. The result is a film that might be really bad or quite good, depending on what repeated viewings offer. The fact is that I am more than willing to give it that repeated viewing, so it gets ***. My mug is up, though the brew inside is a bit dodgy.