Director: Wally Pfister
Cast: Johnny Depp, Rebecca Hall, Morgan Freeman, Paul Bettany, Kate Mara
The Indian Express rating: **
There are too many times these days at the movies when Johnny Depp seems transcendent — certainly unaffected by the normal. This film is apparently counting on it. However, so long gone is Depp down this road that being a digital superpower encased in a computer just doesn’t match the bar.
And that’s not counting the fact that contrary to its name, Transcendence ties itself down in clichés, trying to be a serious film about man vs machine without the hard work of resolving that in any intelligent manner (or realising that this battle has been long lost, as in Her). When the threat is a face floating in ether with the entire world at his fingertips, you would send tanks to take him down. Really?
When we meet Depp the first time, he is doing his act as the confused genius Dr Will Caster, who is not comfortable with his celebrity status as one of the foremost experts on artificial intelligence but quite at ease taking questions and speaking in front of a giant screen with portentous graphics as the backdrop. Basking in his shadows for the show and, we realise, generally for life are loving wife Evelyn (Hall) and dear friend Max (Bettany).
In one of the film’s best scenes, promising much that the film fails to deliver, while that show is on, there are coordinated attacks against experts working in the field of AI across the US. The group behind the attack fears the reach of technology, and one of its attackers hits Will with a radiation-laced bullet. So Will finds himself on the death bed with just weeks to live.
Evelyn decides to use the research of another scientist killed in the attack to keep Will’s brain alive even after his body dies. This is by copying his entire consciousness, much as you would copy music, onto a hard drive. A reluctant Max, who carries a soft spot for Eveyln, is won over despite raising valid questions — “Is it really Will who we will get?”, and “What if we miss a thought, a memory? How will that affect his entire consciousness?”
Evelyn ignores him, and so Will is reborn as the face in the computer. When one of the first demands he makes is to be put online and to get access to Wall Street, alarm bells should ring, but Evelyn is too much in love to hear them.
As the group against technology led by Mara (wearing her trademark expression of quizzical eyes below crunched eyebrows) tries to hunt the two down, Evelyn takes herself and Will to distant Brightwood and digs 5 floors under to build a huge data centre. As Max explains, the “intelligence” that is the new Will needs lots of space and lots of power backups to grow.
The government doesn’t sit up when a firm owned by Evelyn suddenly becomes one of the richest in the world, when it becomes known that she has gone missing with some crucial equipment, when trucks start driving in droves into a sleepy desert town, when solar panels are raised by the thousands there, or when that enormous data centre comes up below. Within, Evelyn has little to do except walk down pristine-white corridors (presumably meant to invoke dreaminess) and nod in appreciation at whatever new thing Will has built overnight, or head out to check on those solar panels at regular intervals.
Bettany is excellent as the man caught between loyalty and reason, while Freeman is as always the fair and wise Freeman.
Pfister, a longtime cinematographer of Christopher Nolan, shows the director’s influence in how he puts together his scenes. However, he lacks Nolan’s ability to both build credible characters with passions and a storyline that is going somewhere with them. Pfister also gets stuck on scenes he is apparently impressed with himself as a photographer, including those solar panels in the desert, later “nano particles” rising up from sand and particularly water droplets sliding off perfect sunflowers.
Only later, much later, as Evelyn eats yet another lonely meal looked on by Will, who is always present, always observant and always questioning her, do we get a sense of her creeping dread.
As the story rather descends into tanks vs “hybrids” created by Will, we have no idea how it came to this.