Perhaps the only thing scarier than the thought of a sentient computer taking over the Internet and creating an army of mindless human drones is that computer being controlled by Johnny Depp. One pictures the enslaved humans in whimsical outfits with overteased hair.
A Depp-controlled supercomputer is at the heart of Transcendence, though sadly director Wally Pfister doesn’t have him go full “Tim Burton” on the human race.
Instead, Depp plays Will Caster, a disheveled, eccentric genius (a stretch for him, I know) who, alongside his wife Evelyn (Rebecca Hall), is working on developing the world’s first self-aware computer. (“Transcendence” is Caster’s term for that moment of sentience.) The problem is that while his software, PINN, can replicate intelligent thought, it lacks the ability to make reasoned decisions.
A radical group called RIFT, lead by the tattooed, bleach blonde Bree (Bree), launches a coordinated attack on Caster and every other scientist working in the field in order to stop them from making what they see as humanity’s greatest threat. Ironically, it’s this attack that gives Caster his breakthrough. Caster is shot with an irradiated bullet, which gives him five weeks to live. The limited timeline convinces Evelyn to upload Will’s consciousness to the cloud, combining it with PINN to give Will a form of immortality.
The film’s central question is: is the computerized version actually Will or just a version of PINN imitating Will in order to manipulate Evelyn in order to take over the world?
It makes for an interesting conflict. Evelyn’s grief pushes her to do this radical thing and her grief clouds her decisions, making her unable to clearly see what virtual Will is doing. This put her at odds with their colleague Max Waters (Paul Bettany), who is firmly in the “virtual Will is really just PINN” camp. Max’s attempts to reason with her only end up getting him kicked off the project.
The film has fun going back and forth between the two possible conclusions about virtual Will, leaving the audience guessing as to which is true. Unfortunately, in the end it must decide which conclusion is right and it’s in the final act that the film falls apart. Somehow what starts as more of an intriguing psychological thriller devolves into a shootout with computer-controlled superhumans surrounded by swirling nanobots battling a militia with enough firepower to level a small city. The climax is scattered and murky and ends up delivering a conclusion that makes little sense and feels utterly unsatisfying.
The build up to that conclusion is filled with some enjoyable moments, thanks to its cast of talented actors. Rebecca Hall is quite good as Evelyn, who goes through a rollercoaster of conflicting emotions throughout the film. Johnny Depp actually shows a lot of restraint in the way he plays Will, turning in a rather subtle, nuanced performance. And Morgan Freeman, who plays another researcher named Joseph Tagger who is working alongside the government, is wonderful as always, even if you get the sense he’s kind of on autopilot in this film.
There are also some fantastic visual effects in the film. As bizarre as the finale becomes, the swirling nanobot effect is actually quite beautiful. And the various screens throughout Evelyn’s residence that display a rendered version of Will’s face as virtual Will is talking to her (or watching her sleep) are fascinatingly creepy.
One other problem with the storytelling, in addition the film’s climax, is the way the film rushes through the opening scenes, which establish Will and Evelyn’s relationship. I understand why Pfister and writer Jack Paglen would want to get to the “good stuff” as quickly as possible (especially with a run-time close to two hours), but their relationship is so central to the core of the story that it needed more time to develop. We are told that they love each other deeply, but we are never really shown it. If her love for Will is going to blind Evelyn to the dangers of his virtual counterpart, we need to clearly see that passion and love. Otherwise the emotions feel inauthentic.
If you are a big Johnny Depp fan or you enjoy any and all man vs. machine stories, you might find this film worth your time. But overall, while it had a lot of potential, it ends up feeling disappointing. They probably should have gone with the army of mindless Tim Burton drones.