This week, the Spring Semester of my movie class began with a screening of the new science fiction drama, “Transcendence”, starring Johnny Depp.
When a technologist is poisoned by a terrorist group, his mind gets uploaded to the supercomputer he’s built in order to resume his work – but when his plans spin out of control, can he be stopped before things go too far?
Will Caster (Depp) is a technologist determined to continue a project developing a powerful neural network designed to surpass the classic model of Artificial Intelligence systems: Instead of learning via heuristics, it acquires knowledge and experience from a wide variety of sources, whether they be publicly available records, photographs or even information from deep within another person’s brain. Since it’s designed to transcend traditional Artificial Intelligence, he calls the technology Transcendence. However, in order to proceed with his research, he needs to raise money, so he reluctantly gives a talk to a collection of potential investors in the hope they will help fund his work.
But there are forces at work who wish to block Caster’s efforts. RIFT is an anti-technology terrorist group that sees Caster’s work as sacrilegious; they interpret his intentions as playing the role of God. As a result, they attempt to assassinate Caster; although he initially survives the bullet and recuperates, Caster is subsequently hospitalized. Lab tests reveal that he’s suffering from radiation poisoning as a result of chemicals laced on the bullet that penetrated his skin; with the poison working its way through Caster’s system and no way to treat it, physicians give him a fatal prognosis.
Despite the fact that Caster knows he’s dying, he is steadfast about having the work advance; towards this end, he has his wife Evelyn (Rebecca Hall) upload his brain to the Transcendence system to give him not only immortality but also the ability to further improve the sophistication of the computer network. However, not long after Caster enters the system, things appear to go awry when the power at his disposal allows him to control others, turning them into a form of android. When Evelyn finally comes to terms with what has happened, can she join RIFT in order to stop Caster or will RIFT’s worst fears become realized?
It would seem that after the misfire of last year’s “Lone Ranger”, Johnny Depp is now in Damage Control Mode with “Transcendence” – the only problem is that with this movie, he’s only dug himself a deeper whole, career-wise. I can’t imagine too many people – either critics or consumers – liking this film. It’s boring and confusing; I must admit that I had a difficult time understanding this rather muddled story. At times, it tries to make a nod to such predecessors as “The Matrix”, touching somewhat on religion, politics and the theme of everlasting love, in addition to technology’s power. While it tries for a bit of timeliness – technology’s intrusion of our personal lives – its reach exceeds its grasp.
Perhaps the reason for this costly mistake (I’m given to understand the budget was somewhere in the vicinity of $120 million) may lie at the feet of its first-time director, Wally Pfister. Pfister, whose main experience is as a cinematographer, seems to have lost sight of the story in favor of making pretty pictures – a not uncommon problem when a cinematographer directs his first feature. This can be a challenge to overcome as it requires a significant shift in perspective from the technical aspects to narrative story structure. Whether or not Pfister gets another turn at bat to sharpen his directing skills may depend on the success (or lack thereof) of “Transcendence”.
One of the reasons why “Transcendence” is hard to follow is because there’s a considerable amount of story that gets lost in the sauce: too many characters to remember (and their relation to Caster isn’t always clear); too many plot points glossed over; confusion over protagonist vs. antagonist (characters’ roles change at various points, possibly throwing the audience a bit off balance for a while). Another thing that hurts the movie is that Depp’s character is seen in a head-and-shoulders shot on a computer monitor during the majority of the film; his “virtual” relationships with the other characters is about as two-dimensional as the image on the monitor.