Dr. Will Caster (Johnny Depp) and his wife, Dr. Evelyn Caster (Rebecca Hall), are at the forefront of artificial intelligence science. After Will is shot by a member of anti-AI group RIFT, Evelyn and long-time friend Dr. Max Waters (Paul Bettany) upload Will’s consciousness into a computer. Evelyn is relieved to get her husband back, but Max worries Will has too much power. While Evelyn and Will work together to build a better intelligence system that allows Will to protect Evelyn and heal any person in the world, Max joins up with RIFT, as well as with AI scientist Dr. Joseph Taggert (Morgan Freeman) and Agent Buchanan (Cillian Murphy) of the FBI to stop Will from controlling the world’s networks.
What makes someone human? Is it their body, their soul, their mind? No one really knows, but it’s something that three movies have tried to cover already this year—Her, RoboCop, and Transcendence. Her took this concept and developed it into a serious conversation with a relationship between a human and an AI at its center. RoboCop was less eloquent (to say the least), but it showed a man stripped of his emotions and control over his own mind, asking us to think about the difference between man and machine.
That’s where Transcendence gets confusing. It introduces this concept, using Will’s mind as the toe that may or may not be crossing the human-machine borderline. Yet the movie never goes deep enough with its premise to actually make a point because it’s too busy showing off its CGI budget with nanobots and other pointless shit (Seriously, why did we need the technology glitter coming out of the ground?)
The problem with this sci-fi film is that it relies so heavily on its cool, new-age concept that it forgets actual science (and story logic).
For example, the very beginning of the movie (which spoils the entire movie with a useless framed narrative, by the way) shows us the aftermath of Will’s power. The world is without electricity. But then, we find out that the plan that stops Will is a human-hosted nanobot virus (I wish I were joking) that shuts down the Internet and all networks. Clearly, someone forgot to tell the screenwriters that the power grid is not run by the Internet. Shutting down the web doesn’t stop nuclear power plants, hydroplants, and wind farms from creating power. It just means people can’t send e-mails and tweet cat videos.
And that’s how this whole movie is. It’s like the screenwriters got high while watching Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey and thought it would be cool if they could throw their two cents into the scientific canon. Just because you regurgitate terminology and futuristic concepts you read about online doesn’t mean you have a solid plot (See: Looper).
Science fiction movies are tough to write so that they seem plausible, I know. Explaining abstract concepts will never be easy (That’s why they’re freaking abstract). But when you can’t even get current science straight, it’s kind of hard to accept the more out-there ideas.
Sadly, even if the poorly-written plot was better, we’d still have the issues of little to no character development for characters other than Will and Evelyn (Max deserved a better backstory, considering his role in the plot) and absolutely awful film editing and pacing. But, hey, at least the actors were pretty good. Rebecca Hall worked the romantic conflict angle really well, showing both fear and longing whenever she interacted with Johnny Depp’s unsurprisingly creepy Will.
Also, can somebody get Kate Mara (who plays one of the members of RIFT) a better wig? Or was all of the costuming money spent on CGI?
Overall, Transcendence tries so hard to convince you that it’s worth scientific and philosophical discussion, but it does little more than flash good actors and expensive CGI at you in an attempt to distract you from its eyerollingly bad plot and amateur-level film editing. If you’ve ever heard someone refer to something as “high concept, low execution,” that’s basically what Transcendence is.
For my radio review of Transcendence on “Pat & JT in the Morning,” visit this link (starts around the 20:02 mark).