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‘Transcendence’ not engaging enough to hold one’s attention

By Christopher K. Conner

What happens when the development of Artificial Intelligence is given a jump start by uploading a conscious mind? That’s the question explored in Wally Pfister’s directorial debut, “Transcendence.”

Dr. Will Caster (Johnny Depp) is a top Artificial Intelligence researcher who has reluctantly agreed to give a talk to raise money for his research by his wife Dr. Evelyn Caster (Rebecca Hall). To make her happy he also sets up partially shielded garden in their back yard that prevents cell reception so they can spend time together without interruptions.

During their presentations, we see a differences of goal and approach between Will, Evelyn and Dr. Max Waters (Paul Bettany). Max hopes to find cures to diseases from the process of AI research. Evelyn hopes to eliminate global problems. Will just wants to understand. During his talk, Will is questioned by an audience member whether he is trying to create God. Will remarks, “Isn’t that what man has always done?”

After the presentation, simultaneous attacks on AI research labs around the country end with the audience member shooting Will Caster, then killing himself. A neo-luddite group determined to halt progress on Artificial Intelligence orchestrated the attacks.

The wound to Will is initially thought to be non-life threatening, but when Will’s condition continues to get worse they discover that the slug was laced with radioactive metal. He will die in weeks from radiation poisoning.

Going over the research of another fallen researcher, Evelyn resolves to try and save her husband’s intellect by uploading his thoughts into part of his quantum computer. Enlisting Max’s help, the three work in secret and spend the last days of Will’s life in a secluded lab.

Once Will ultimately dies, Evelyn tries to awaken the artificial Will. Max distrusts the intelligence and Evelyn forces him to leave when he tries to shut it down. Alone, Max is captured by the terrorists and through their leader Bree (Kate Mara) learns their philosophy is based on some of his own writing on the subject of AI. Evelyn races to get the new Will connected to the Internet so he can expand and complete himself, as well as do the legwork of turning the terrorists in to the FBI.

Recognizing that he needs a sanctuary, Will and Evelyn build a data center in a remote desert town, using a solar array to provide power for Will’s existence and his experiments. Evelyn starts to doubt whether the AI is truly the essence of her husband, or if it is something completely different.

“Transcendence” tries to convey a message behind pretty standard sci-fi. Much of the story is so predictable and dull that you hope there’s a punchline that makes the film worth your time. Depp, who I’m convinced has forgotten what his own voice really sounds like, delivers a robotic performance throughout. Maybe that is on purpose so the audience can question whether the AI is Will Caster or not, but if so it was a poor decision. A less dynamic actor might have fit the role better.

The counter side to Depp, Rebecca Hall’s performance was riddled with tension and growing apprehension at the creation she brought to life. She seemed to be channeling Shelley Duvall near the climax and I fully expected her to have a complete Wendy Torrance-like meltdown.

The film wasn’t engaging enough to prevent my mind from wandering. At one point I wondered why Paul Bettany has never played Dr. Who. Later I considered why any actress other than Kate Mara would be cast as an insane mastermind. Anything to pass the time between points of interest in the film.

“Transcendence” does have a punchline. Two, really. While not for everyone, those alone might make the film something of a classic eventually. Still, both were so subtle I wonder how many will catch them. Perhaps subtle is the wrong word.

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