‘Transcendence’ movie review


In his onscreen digital manifestation, Will Caster (Johnny Depp) grows difficult to deal with for his mentor, Joseph Tagger (Morgan Freeman), left, Agent Buchanan (Cillian Murphy) and Caster’s wife, Evelyn (Rebecca Hall), in “Transcendence.” (Peter Mountain)
April 17

The dystopian future envisioned by last year’s critical darling “Her” reappears in “Transcendence,” albeit with a lot more testosterone. You could even call this new thriller — in which a godlike artificial intelligence, played by Johnny Depp, starts building an army of cyborg zombies — “Him.”

Unlike that earlier film about a man who falls in love with a computer operating system, which was a poetic, melancholic meditation on the failure to connect, “Transcendence” is a kind of high-tech horror story.

In this case, the bogeyman is the Internet. The extent to which it succeeds in frightening depends on your philosophical alignment with, say, Ted Kaczynski.

People living in cabins without running water or WiFi, in other words, will probably love it, because it confirms their deepest, darkest fears. All others, proceed with caution.

The story gets underway when Will Caster (Depp), a scientist specializing in artificial intelligence, narrowly survives a shooting by a member of a radical anti-technology group. When it becomes clear that Will has been poisoned by a polonium-tipped bullet, his wife, Evelyn (Rebecca Hall), and his best friend, Max (Paul Bettany), hit upon the idea of uploading Will’s fading consciousness to a supercomputer.

Johnny Depp attends the premiere of "Transcendence" in Los Angeles. Depp plays a scientist at odds with an anti-technology terrorist group. (Reuters)

Will, who is now merely a collection of ones and zeros, decides to surf the Web, vacuuming up all human knowledge and power — including WebMD, cat videos and access to the global financial system — into his electronic brain. In short order, he has morphed from a mild-mannered computer nerd into a sexier version of Oz the Great and Powerful, reigning, via video screen, over a fortified bunker in the desert, where his arms and legs have been replaced by a cadre of humanoid automatons created, through robotic nanosurgery, in his futuristic subterranean lab.

And how, exactly, is all of this accomplished?

Considering that the setting of the film is the present day — based on the look of the cars people are driving — it’s a mystery. A perfunctory shot of a dying Will reciting, in alphabetical order, the contents of the Oxford English Dictionary while his bald head is hooked up to electrodes is meant to aid in our willing suspension of disbelief.

Any other questions? Look people, we’ve got a movie to get through here.

Directed by cinematographer-turned-filmmaker Wally Pfister, from a script by first-timer Jack Paglen, “Transcendence” wastes no time with such details as logic or credibility. It’s the kind of movie in which people shout stuff like, “The incoming queries have all been anonymized!” — hoping, presumably, that most people will be so surprised to learn that “anonymize” is a word that they won’t stop to wonder what that sentence means.

Never mind that artificial intelligence of this level, by even the most optimistic estimates, is still decades away. The concept of a mighty cyber-brain being able to transcend our puny human ones — what some futurists call the “singularity” — isn’t due before 2045, at the earliest, according to many prognosticators.

The problem with “Transcendence” isn’t that it’s an utter crock. At times, the tale, like “Her,” betrays flashes of genuine insight into our love-hate relationship with technology. And the acting, while wooden on the part of Depp — who appears throughout most of the film on a monitor, like a high-def Max Headroom — is decent enough.

Even the love story sort of works, in the way that Evelyn’s yearning for Will blinds her to the fact that the “Will” on screen, who isn’t above embezzling other people’s money to finance the construction of his lair, isn’t remotely like the man she married. She’s no different from a widow who saves her late husband’s voicemails so that she can still listen to him. That’s touching, even if her husband’s pillow talk these days consists of statements like “The balance of oxytocin and serotonin in your system is unusual.”

No, the real trouble with “Transcendence” is that it just isn’t all that scary — at least not in the way that it wants to be.

The movie opens with a prologue, set five years in the future, in which there is no more Internet, no more Facebook, no more Google. This post-apocalyptic vision of an unplugged tomorrow is supposed to be horrifying, but in truth, the thought of a world that has hit the restart button, however reluctantly, is actually kind of refreshing.

½

PG-13. At area theaters. Contains some violent and bloody images, obscenity and sensuality. 119 minutes.

Born and raised in Washington, D.C., Michael O’Sullivan has worked since 1993 at The Washington Post, where he covers art, film and other forms of popular — and unpopular — culture.
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