Transcendence

Dr. Will Caster (Johnny Depp) is a brilliant computer scientist and theorist.  His work is focused on creating a computer program that is sentient and could think and act independently.  He calls this Transcendence.  His wife, Evelyn (Rebecca Hall), also works with technology in the hope of improving healthcare and the environment.  Their friend, Max Waters (Paul Bettany), focuses his research into preventative and curative uses for nano technology and artificial blood.  At a conference for to attract potential investors, Will is shot and injured by a member of an anti-artificial intelligence extremist group called Revolutionary Independence From Technology, or RIFT for short.  At the same time Will is shot, attacks against AI research labs are carried out across the country, killing many of the top theorists in the field.  One of the few survivors is Dr. Joseph Tagger (Morgan Freeman), a friend of Will’s.  The FBI is investigating the attacks and sends Agent Buchanan (Cillian Murphy) to lead the probe.  Will wasn’t seriously injured by the gunshot but falls ill.  It’s discovered the bullet was laced with a radioactive element that will kill Will in a month or so.  Unable to accept this, Evelyn sets up a secret lab and steals several hard drives from Will’s AI experiment called PINN.  Evelyn recruits Max to help her upload Will’s consciousness and memories to the hard drives, allowing him to live virtually and become the sentient program he was trying to construct.  Max is afraid of what the uploaded consciousness might become if everything isn’t perfectly copied from Will’s mind.  Evelyn pleads with him and he relents.  Several electrodes are planted in Will’s brain and the process begins.  Will dies and Evelyn and Max try to make the jumble of information on the hard drives into a coherent personality.  Initially believing they have failed, Will makes contact indicating he is living in the machine.  Max thinks they should pull the plug when Will expresses an interest in exploring the web and needing more power and memory capacity.  Evelyn freaks out and orders him to leave.  At a bar, Max is approached by Bree (Kate Mara), the leader of the RIFT group.  She wants his help in destroying the Will program before it gets on the web and becomes unstoppable.  He refuses and is abducted by a couple of RIFT members.  RIFT figures out the location of the secret lab and heads there to destroy Will but they are too late as Evelyn uploads him to the internet.  Will’s access to all the information on the web allows him to grow more and more powerful.  Does this sentient program have good or evil intentions?
 
“Transcendence” is the first directorial effort from Wally Pfister, the cinematographer for Christopher Nolan.  While his eye for beautiful and meaningful images is on display here, his lack of storytelling acumen is as well.  There are long sections of the film where very little happens while other portions contain lengthy and loving looks at various aspects of the nuts and bolts of the story.  Much of this could and should have been trimmed from the final cut as “Transcendence” is a dull two-hour movie that would have been an interesting and exciting 90-minute film.
 
It’s hard to fault Pfister for lavishing lots of time and film stock on aspects of the plot that are important to the story.  The various images of Depp being uploaded to the computer while dying are integral to getting us to the portions of the film when his character is everywhere all at once and flexing his virtual muscles.  These montages and scenes of constructing his base of operations or Evelyn running from RIFT are just given too much detail.  It isn’t that the film is padded, but overstuffed with important information that could have been delivered more succinctly.
 
The script also doesn’t give the characters played by Morgan Freeman and Cillian Murphy much to do.  They have a part to play in the story but much of their time on screen is spent looking amazed or confused.  They could have propelled the action along at a quicker pace if their characters were allowed to be more active.  As it is, the two actors should be embarrassed to collect their paychecks considering how little they do.  Granted, it’s nice work if you can get it but these talented actors could have been used more effectively.
 
Parts of the story tend to go off the rails and not make a great deal of sense.  The biggest of these flaws happens early when the other AI researchers are killed by poison or explosives but Will is only injured.  Yes, he’s poisoned by polonium and eventually dies but it seems odd such extreme measures were used to eliminate other scientists while Will survives, suffering an agonizing death that allowed him to do exactly what the terrorists didn’t want him to do.  The ending also left me a bit puzzled.  I won’t spoil it but Will takes an action that isn’t necessary given his resources.  It seemed like a copout for the character to make this particular choice when others were available to him.  The screenwriter took the romantic way out of the situation when a logically thinking sentient computer program would have probably made a very different decision.
 
“Transcendence” is rated PG-13 for sci-fi action and violence, some bloody images, brief strong language and sensuality.  There are some shootings and scattered beatings.  A fair amount of blood is shown spilling from bodies.  The sensuality is brief and shown during a dream sequence.  There is no nudity.  Foul language is limited.
 
“Transcendence” has a fascinating premise that humanity is moving closer and closer to facing.  Sadly, the film wastes this unique idea with bloated storytelling and flawed logic.  One day, we may all cheat death by being uploaded to a massive hard drive.  I hope my virtual life is better constructed than this movie.
 
“Transcendence” gets three guitars out of five.
 
A wide variety of new movies, from action to documentary, open this week.  Vote for the next film I see and review.
 
Brick Mansions— In a dystopian Detroit, abandoned brick mansions left from better times now house only the most dangerous criminals. Unable to control the crime, the police constructed a colossal containment wall around this area to protect the rest of the city. For undercover cop Damien Collier every day is a battle against corruption. For Lino, every day is a fight to live an honest life.
 
The Other Woman— After discovering her boyfriend is married, a woman tries to get her ruined life back on track, then accidentally meets the wife her boyfriend has been cheating on.
 
Particle Fever—At the Large Hadron Collider, physicists brace for the greatest success or failure of all time.
 
The Quiet Ones— A university student and some classmates are recruited to carry out a private experiment -- to create a poltergeist.
 
Under the Skin— A voluptuous woman of unknown origin (Scarlett Johansson) combs the highways in search of isolated or forsaken men, luring this succession of lost souls into an otherworldly lair.
 
Stan’s Choice—Stan sees and reviews any movie of his choice currently in theatres or On Demand.
 
Release dates are subject to change and not all films may be shown in Knoxville, TN.
 
Questions and comments should be sent to stanthemovieman@att.net.  Follow Stan on Twitter @moviemanstan.
 
One last thing, if you have cable, do yourself a favor and check out “Fargo,” the FX show based on the Coen brothers’ film of the same name.  After one episode I’m hooked.  If you don’t have FX it’s available for purchase on Amazon Instant Video for $2.99 an episode or save a little and purchase a season pass.