“Can you prove that you are self-aware?” says artificial intelligence researcher Joseph Tagger (Morgan Freeman) to P.I.N.N., latest computer product of his A.I. team. “Can you?” answers P.I.N.N. The same question and answer occur multiple times in this serious-minded sci-fi drama that’s mostly cautionary tale, partly love story.
Can Will Caster’s (Johnny Depp) wife (Rebecca Hall) and close friend/colleague Max Waters (Paul Bettany) upload Will’s consciousness into P.I.N.N.? If so, what will the consequences be? Apocalyptic or utopian? For answers, see “Transcendence.”
Johnny Depp, Rebecca Hall, Paul Bettany and Morgan Freeman are Ph.D’s Will and Evelyn Caster, Max Waters and Joseph Tagger, A.I. researchers whose work, if successful, will lead humankind to its next evolutionary level. “For 130,000 years,” says Will, “our capacity to use human intelligence has not changed, but with intelligent machines we will surpass the intelligence of all humans who have ever lived.” Will is single-minded, a true believer in his work (whose assassination comes as no surprise if you’ve seen the trailer). Evelyn and Paul, as played by Hall and Bettany, are more interesting characters, committed to their research goal but doubtful about its possible outcomes. Reliable Morgan Freeman is fatherly Joseph Tagger.
Others in the cast include Cillian Murphy and Cole Hauser as government agent Buchanan and Colonel Stevens, mobilized to deal with a crisis, and Kate Mara, Clifton Collins Jr., Cory Hardrict and Falk Hentschel as RIFT (Revolutionary Independence From Technology) members, radical opponents of sentient machines and what Will calls “transcendence.”
“Transcendence” is science-fiction drama, addressing important issues with an interesting but flawed narrative. Wally Pfister, master cinematographer, directs from a screenplay by Jack Paglen. The script is the problem: Its love-story ending seems tacked on, belonging to another movie that doesn’t have, as this one does, a post-apocalyptic frame. Max’s mid-film ominous lines — “This thing is like any intelligence. It needs to grow, to evolve. It will want more. After a while, survival will not be enough” — do not suggest a happy ending. Did the front office insist on one?
Rated PG-13 for sci-fi action, violence, some bloody images, strong language and sensuality, “Transcendence” runs 119 minutes. Its principal pleasures are visual, but it’s interesting to talk about afterwards.
“Transcendence” fails to click –
Its love-story ending
Belongs in another flick.