Director: Wally Pfister.
Cast: Johnny Depp, Rebecca Hall, Paul Bettany, Morgan Freeman, Cillian Murphy, Clifton Collins Jr, Kate Mara.
|"You can piss up a rope/you can put on your shoes/hit the road/get truckin'...."|
From HAL in 2001: A Space Odyssey to Terminator's Skynet, these sentient slices of silicone tend to value their own existence over that of humanity, Asimov's first law of robotics be damned.
Transcendence, the directorial debut of Christopher Nolan's regular cinematographer Wally Pfister, delves into the theoreticals and hypotheticals of AI in interesting ways, raising plenty of questions along the way about where this technological superhighway might lead.
But the film lacks the foreboding or tension that usually comes with going head-to-hard drive with a computerised combatant, leaving its all-star cast to get hysterical while we wonder whether it's all really that bad.
The potentially big bad bunch of bytes in Transcendence is Will Caster (Depp), an artificial intelligence (AI) expert who is shot by a group of anti-technology radicals.
In desperation, his wife Evelyn (Hall) and their friend Max (Bettany) upload Will's consciousness into their AI supercomputer. From there it's just a skip and jump to the internet and soon Will is everywhere; an omnipresent, omniscient and omnipotent force that can finally help Evelyn fulfil her dreams of changing the world.
But is AI Will really evil? Much of the film's final half is dedicated to the battle to shut Will down, but the film's tone and atmosphere is strangely devoid of tension.
This is partly because AI Will appears to be more of a benevolent god than a malevolent one. His actions appear completely altruistic throughout the story, yet everyone is busy looking at the 'what if?' while running around yelling 'we have to shut it down!'.
It's as if an essential part of the plot has been missed or skimmed over - yes, things get creepy, but where's the dramatic tension and the call to conflict? The film rushes to its final showdown after setting a languid pace for the first hour, and something has been left out in the process.
Having said that, maybe I'm looking at this the wrong way. Who's the big bad here - the AI making the world a better place or the stupid humans afraid of change? Is this why the tension and drama is manufactured or lacking - because we're "programmed" to barrack for the stupid humans?
The ideas at play in Transcendence - the old touchstones of man vs machine, evolution, the dangers and morals of technology, and gods and mortals - are the highlight of the film, along with a strong cast and some beautiful cinematography. Given Pfister's work on Nolan's Batman trilogy and Inception, it's no surprise Transcendence looks amazing, and the director certainly takes his time to focus on abstract close-ups as part of the film's symbolism.
Hall does great work, as does Bettany, and everyone else is serviceable. The only mis-step is Depp, whose subdued turn might perplex some people. For someone accused of hamming it up way too much lately (The Lone Ranger, Dark Shadows, Pirates Of The Caribbean, Alice In Wonderland), Depp's performance is so underplayed as to be almost non-existent. If nothing else, it's unexpected.
Transcendence is enjoyable but with this cast and these ideas, it's a missed opportunity. The possibilities of its story are frightening and intense, but the film never feels like either of these things.