Transcendence tries to explore that premise.
A brilliant intellectual with quite a following -- some good, some bad -- Dr. Will Caster (Johnny Depp) has long wondered about the potential of artificial intelligence. One of his theories has that A.I. eventually growing to the point that it supersedes all human intelligence (his Transcendence theory) and then who knows what will happen? It is a theory that produces quite a counter, people scared of that potential, people who pull off an assassination attempt on Will because of what he might be up to. As he slowly dies from radiation poisoning, Will begins to work with his wife, Evelyn (Rebecca Hall), and a friend and associated, Max (Paul Bettany), about uploading his consciousness into a potentially thinking computer that will act as his brain and be that missing link in human intelligence turned into A.I. Max sees the potential but also the inherent threat in what they're doing. Evelyn on the other hand, simply wants to preserve her husband in whatever way she can. What will become of this potentially world-altering scientific development?
Talk about a movie that you think 'What could have been.' I loved the idea of 'Transcendence,' what first-time director Wally Pfister and writer Jack Paglen are going for. The execution at times, falls a bit short. For what they set out to do, this is a scenario that at times feels rushed, feels goofy, feels like we're missing something. There's some plot holes I feel an 18-wheeler could drive through comfortably. How does the government not realize what Will's A.I. is doing? How does no one notice millions and millions of dollars changing hands on Wall Street? If the answer is 'Will's A.I. stopped the passing of knowledge,' that's just not a good reason. In a way I can't put my finger on, there's something missing from this tech thriller. It's something that stops it from truly being all it can be. The Marines!
Now that said...I enjoyed this flick. I didn't love it, but whatever. Reviews were universally negative, and 'Transcendence' did struggle in theaters, especially in the U.S. There's an impressive cast put together, and Pfister's background is working as cinematographer on Christopher Nolan's Batman movies so we see some familiar faces in that case. If it doesn't develop as well as it should, so be it. I was intrigued by the premise, the build-up and even if there are holes along the way, I was entertained throughout. It gets goofy -- downright goofy, even stupid -- in the final act but I was invested in it to the end...even if it uses one of those ominous final shots that feature a twist that makes literally NO SENSE. That's for you to decide though. Feels like a lot of folks really disliked this one, but there's enough positive going on to give it a mild recommendation.
Johnny Depp has been in a rut for a couple years now so give him credit here for taking a unique, out of the ordinary lead role. It's not really a SPOILER, but his Dr. Caster is dead 30 minutes into the movie only to see his brain and consciousness uploaded into a computer. In just about every role he's in, Depp -- say whatever else you want -- is a likable on-screen presence. It's a solid part, his monotone delivery as A.I. Jack adding a creepy dimension to the second half of the flick. What is the A.I.'s goal? Is it well-meaning or is there a darker intent? The answer in the end surprised me for sure, but Depp is one of the best parts of the movie. Hall is very good too as his wife, Evelyn, working as the audience is to try and figure out what her husband (or at least her husband's mind) is up to.
Who else to look for? There's some solid names if not necessarily well-written parts, several sticking with Pfister from the Batman flicks. I thought Bettany was good if underused as Max, a researcher who immediately sees the threat of uploading Will's mind who also possibly maybe probably has a thing for Evelyn. Also look for Cillian Murphy (FBI), Morgan Freeman (necessary wise older man role), Kate Mara (cute extremist who hates technology), Cole Hauser (mean-looking army officer), and Clifton Collins Jr. (dupe for Will's ever-building power).
As I look back on 'Transcendence,' I'm remembering all those goofy moments that could have used a little more development, a little more time to breathe. The story has a ton of potential, maybe enough to justify a two-part miniseries that could have explained the science in more depth. As is though, it's a slightly above average technological thriller. Worth a watch/rent.
Transcendence (2014): ** 1/2 /****