Movie Review - Transcendence
This idea of mixing a man's head with that of a machine isn't new. Just a couple of weeks ago, Captain America: The Winter Soldier had the character of Zola do the same thing. The TV series Star Trek: The Next Generation also did the same thing. In Season 4, Episode 19, "The Nth Degree," had the character of Reginald Barclay upload his brain into ship's computer.
Wally Pfister's debut feature is a back-and-forth between humans who trust that technology is our savior, or is our God, and those who think technology will ultimately destroy us. The first half of the film is all about trusting technology. The second half is all about mistrusting.
I didn't catch the metaphor at the time, but in the center of this technology tug-of-war is the Jesus Christ story. Johnny Depp plays Will Caster but his name might as well be Jesus Christ. Will's gospel is about the wonders of artificial intelligence and nanotechnology.
The people who crucify him argue against these wonders. Why? No specific reason is given in the script by Jack Paglen. They just need to be anti-Will, enough to want to kill him, and kill him they do. Jesus, I mean Will, doesn't stay killed. He's resurrected. The question is if Will has then the same intentions as Jesus.
Will speaks with the same compassion or at times a tone of voice as HAL 9000 from 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), so we're conditioned to be wary. There's no humor or charm to Will once he becomes a digital program. It's not like Scarlett Johansson's character of Samantha in Spike Jonze's Her. Johansson's performance is boiling over with humor and charm. It fools completely as a real-life woman. Depp's performance, his face and voice feel robotic, cold, computerized and stiff. It's a curiosity of how more trusting Will's digital self would have been if that digital self had more of a funny and warm personality.
It's also a curiosity how the screenplay doesn't help to establish relationships and characters. There isn't much setup that bonds or builds the love between Will and his wife Evelyn, played by Rebecca Hall (The Prestige and Vicky Cristina Barcelona). There isn't much that bonds or builds the friendship between Will and Max, played by Paul Bettany (A Beautiful Mind and The Da Vinci Code). Bettany and Hall are good enough actors to make it work, but, again the script doesn't serve them that well.
Max then has to turn against Will and the script doesn't help us to understand why Max makes that turn. Max sides with a terrorist group. Given all that the terrorist group does, including killing Max's best friend, the logical leap for him to then join that terrorist group is not there. It makes no sense.
The ending makes no sense either. Will and Evelyn build this laboratory where Will can conduct experiments and work on advancing technology exponentially further. When that lab goes under attack, he could easily escape, but he doesn't. Evelyn is shot and he could easily heal her with nanotechnology, but he doesn't, and the explanation as to why is too confusing.
Two Stars out of Five.
Rated PG-13 for action and violence, some bloody images, brief strong language and sensuality.
Running Time: 1 hr. and 59 mins.