Though flawed, Johnny Depp sci-fi drama Transcendence deserves more (and better) attention than it's getting 

Artificial Intelligence

Artificial Intelligence

It's hard to know what to make of Transcendence, it's such a flabbergasting fluke — a quietly clever science fiction film whose set pieces and action scenes are mostly negligible. Not only is spectacle beside the point, much of the movie's plot (which revolves around a computer program that develops omniscience and stealthily tries to take over the world) is inert. But Transcendence feels like a B-movie that was somehow filmed on an A-movie scale, complete with IMAX photography and stars the caliber of Johnny Depp and Morgan Freeman. That's a compliment, I swear!

Transcendence has unswerving confidence and brainy swagger enough to sustain a two-hour runtime. This last point is especially impressive since the film is longtime Christopher Nolan cinematographer Wally Pfister's directorial debut. It's a talky action film: Many scenes start with some variation on, "Let me show you something," and stop after, "We've got to act now, or it'll be too late!" But like any decent science fiction film, Transcendence has ideas complex enough to provoke thought.

An inscrutable vanity project that doubles as a plot-driven star vehicle, Transcendence stars Depp as Will Caster, a brilliant but callous computer engineer. His plans to create artificially intelligent software make him a target for Unplug, an angsty group of anti-technology terrorists who shoot him and give him fatal radiation poisoning. So Will's wife Evelyn (Rebecca Hall) and best friend Max (Paul Bettany) try to map out his brain, make a copy of his consciousness, and transplant it to Will's A.I. But once Will dies, and his computer program comes alive, it's hard to tell who's in control: Ersatz Will, or his computer. That's the heady crux of Transcendence, a movie about a demonstrably evil machine that is at least partly human.

The problem with loving Transcendence for its main conceit is that it doesn't always know what to do with it. On the one hand, the patient and thoughtful way first-time screenwriter Jack Paglen develops the film's central conflict is exciting. We watch and wait as Will builds an army in the desert and Max tries to stop him/it. But chutzpah and resolve take Paglen's story only so far. Transcendence moves, and it often looks fantastic, but by film's end you realize that it never really went anywhere. Its incremental pacing is weirdly tranquilizing, and so is its heavily qualified Luddite message: Maybe turning technology into a weird mix of human personality and cold machinery isn't such a good thing. Who the hell was this movie made for, anyway?

And yet I want to watch it again and get comfortable with its many shortcomings (for example, any scene with the Unplug movement), because the best parts have charm and poise enough to make up for what's missing. Better still, it doesn't settle for a neat resolution or duck the troubling issues it raises, and it doesn't cop out in the end. It's not a film directed by an assembly line, and it's not easy to shake. I wish more studio-produced films were as unsettling as Transcendence. It's not a great film, but it does deserve your attention.

Email arts@nashvillescene.com.

Transcendence

PG-13, 119 min.

Now playing everywhere

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