Transcendence is a plot-hole minefield. A techno-thriller based on a shaky premise that doesn’t even begin to start answering the questions it poses. Instead, it’s too caught up in forbidden love to make any sense of what’s going on in the story. It’s a movie with big ambitions, I’ll give it that. Lifetime cinematographer Wally Pfister (Inception) finally gets his shot to direct. He’s certainly adept at understanding where his camera should be and how to frame a shot. Unfortunately, the script, penned by relatively unknown screenwriter Jack Paglen, is as hollow as the promise of fully functioning artificial intelligence.
Will Caster (Johnny Depp) is the preeminent leader in his chosen field, researching and developing artificial intelligence. The idea is soon planted that an AI with the ability to think and operate on its own would soon become smarter than the collective intelligence of everyone who has ever lived in the history of the world. It’s a brave new world Will is proposing. The benefits appear to be limitless if somehow scientists could create a viable, self-aware AI. Along with his wife, Evelyn (Rebecca Hall), they’re so close to realizing their dream. They’ve created an AI nicknamed PINN. While intelligent, there’s still something missing. The human element.
While this technology promises to improve and enrich the lives of everyone on earth — a claim that just about every new technology makes — there are some people that don’t want to see the creation of autonomous thinking machines. A domestic terrorist group called R.I.F.T. is determined not to let this technology out. Even if it means murdering people like Will in order to stifle and end years of research.
As the previews indicate, an assassination attempt on Will by R.I.F.T. proves fatal. But not before Evelyn, along with family friend Max (Paul Bettany), are able to upload Will’s consciousness into PINN’s existing memory. For having never done a procedure like this before, they sure know what they’re doing. They hook Will up to some electrodes, punch a few keys, sit back and watch him get uploaded.
With Will inside the program, he’s now a fully functioning intelligence, able to learn and grow faster than anyone would’ve imagined. The implications are frightening, and it’s easy to see why the R.I.F.T. group was so terrified of it. There are some deep, thought-provoking questions asked during the movie, yet it becomes stymied by its own stodginess. Great lengths of the movie feel like they’re going everywhere and nowhere simultaneously, resulting in an awkwardly paced thriller that isn’t all that thrilling. It’s just sort of there, meandering through its story without fully realizing the life and death stakes it’s created.
Though the scope seems epic, the movie never really conveys it. It feels too confined, too walled off from the rest of society. Once Will is able to do extraordinary things, critical situations arise that could’ve been handled much easier had Will followed his own advice. By the time the end rolls around, the plot-holes are so numerous and so large, that it’s hard to ignore them anymore. There are fundamental aspects of the story that make no sense whatsoever.
Transcendence does have a great cast. Along with Depp, Black, and Bettany, Cillian Murphy, Morgan Freeman and Kate Mara all provide solid performances. Depp isn’t playing his usual wacko character. He’s toned down, and like most toned-down Depp roles, he appears to be coasting through it.
There are some decent ideas about technology and its inherent dangers. Conveying them effectively is a different story. The movie wallows around in Evelyn’s misplaced love for a machine, neglecting the meatier sci-fi aspects it tried so hard to build in the first place.