With Easter just around the corner, it’s probably no coincidence that just as the furor over “Noah,” a man who had visions from God, has died down, we are treated to Johnny Depp taking the futuristic steps in becoming a god in “Transcendence.” A cautionary tale about the evils of technology by way of artificial intelligence gets the visual treatment by acclaimed cinematographer Wally Pfister (“Inception,” the Dark Knight trilogy) in his directorial debut, but this is more than just a big budget version of “Siri Goes Wild.”
Johnny Depp plays Will Caster, the leading scientist in the field of Artificial Intelligence. He’s brilliant to the point of being a bit bored with the non-scientific world, not that his flock of geek groupies seems to mind. (Eat your heart out, Reed Richards). Keeping him tethered to people, places and things is his loving wife, Evelyn (Rebecca Hall). She’s more than Will’s diplomatic arm candy, though. She’s arguably his intellectual equal.
While Will charges down the road towards creating sentient machines, his best friend and part-time conscience, Max (Paul Bettany), reminds him that just because you can play god doesn’t mean you should. Apparently, he’s not the only one who thinks society should pump the brakes on giving Cortina cyber synapses to work with. The anti-tech terrorist organization R.I.F.T (Revolutionary Independence from Technology) – led be Kate Mara’s Bree – subtly voices its opposition with a coordinated attack targeting the Casters’ former mentor, Joseph Tagger (Morgan Freeman), and killing his entire staff in the process. But Will isn’t spared when the group attempts to kill him as well, and they pull it off… somewhat.
After he’s poisoned by R.I.F.T. and given only days to live, Evelyn does the unthinkable and transfers Will’s mind into his living computer P.I.N.N. (You can’t have science without a couple good acronyms), the Physically Independent Neural Network. As Will tells a crowd before he’s shot, “Once online, a sentient machine will quickly overcome the limits of biology.” And he does just that, initially to the delight of his grieving wife Evelyn and the shock of his pal Max. Will is more than just a ghost in the machine, however, using his near-infinite knowledge to help change the world, effectively becoming a god. Yes, connecting to the internet can make you a god, but the Casters come to find that being a diety power couple comes at a price.
Wally Pfister takes the screenplay by Jack Paglen (also making his big screen debut) and runs with it, challenging the audience with deep moral dilemmas under the guise of a techno thriller. Earning four Oscar nominations hasn’t been lost on Pfister, as he manages to make a dark and winding onscreen road where you’re not sure what’s around the next corner. Will’s brave new world is as tempting as it is frightening, with bright whites and deep ebony backgrounds that have a dreamlike quality before the nightmare begins. Watching Hall walk down the all white, brightly lit laboratory where Will conducts his magic is a mix between your worst trip to the dentist and an encounter with Hal 9000 from “2001: A Space Odyssey.”
Depp’s performance as the man turned computer turned hybrid is entertaining only when he’s providing the voice of Will’s consciousness inside the machine. His initial appearance as the mumbling super-scientist makes you wonder when we’ll see the last signs of Captain Jack. It makes you wish that Pfister told Depp to enunciate a little more, almost as much as you wish mentor (and executive producer) Christopher Nolan told a certain Dark Knight not to mumble.
Rebecca Hall, on the other hand, is the glue that holds the film together. She’s not only the intellectual link between the unrestrained genius of Will and the moral compass of Max, but she’s the compassionate balance between the two, weighing the morality of saving the world as she struggles to resolve her feelings with what her husband has become.
Are humans ready for a god in their own backyard, and are they willing to live with the consequences? “Transcendence” tackles those questions in a thought-provoking film that could’ve gone a little smoother, but it’s a ride that even Noah would’ve appreciated.