Director: Wally Pfister
Starring: Johnny Depp, Rebecca Hall, Paul Bettany, Morgan Freeman
We can do anything now that scientists have invented magic. But, oh, this is not cause for celebration, for the future brings nothing but despair according to Transcendence, a film pitched not merely at the level of panic, but at sheer hysteria in its nightmare vision about the slippery slope of technology. Once we create a self-aware AI, there's nothing it won't be able to do! We'll have to throw out the proverbial baby with the bathwater just to stop it! All that will be left is destruction, darkness, and a backwards leap into a pre-technological age. Transcendence has an interesting premise, which is perhaps to be expected from a film whose screenplay once appeared on Hollywood's famed Black List, the annual roster of the best unproduced screenplays in any given year (though given that this year's critically reviled Dirty Grandpa also once appeared on the Black List, as did such beloved classics as The Other Boleyn Girl, Wild Hogs, All About Steve, Clash of the Titans, and Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter, it's perhaps not the prestigious list it sells itself as being), but it doesn't do anything very interesting with it.
Transcendence begins at the end, with Max (Paul Bettany) wandering through a post-technology world where there is no electricity, and recalls how it came to that point. Five years earlier his friends Will (Johnny Depp) and Evelyn (Rebecca Hall) are on the verge of changing the world through the creation of a sentient computer that will achieve technological singularity. Fearful of the implications that would flow from such a creation, a terrorist group known as R.I.F.T. ("Revolutionary Independence From Technology") aims to stop them before they complete their project and unleash a series of coordinated attacks on A.I. laboratories across the United States and an assassination attempt on Will. Will survives being shot, but is informed by his doctor that the bullet was laced with polonium and that he only has five weeks left to live as a result. Desperate to keep Will with her, Evelyn comes up with a plan to upload his consciousness into the quantum computer they've been developing, convincing a reluctant Will and an even more reluctant Max to help her. They are successful in their efforts, but when the now digital version of Will asks to be connected to the internet so that his power and reach can grow, Max warns Evelyn that things are on the verge of going too far.
When Max is kidnapped by R.I.F.T., who eventually talk him into joining their side, time begins to run out for Evelyn to connect Will to the internet and she manages to do it only moments before R.I.F.T. attacks their home. In the aftermath, Evelyn goes on the run while Will uses his ever growing knowledge and power to provide her with seemingly limitless financial resources and buys up the land in the near-ghost town of Brightwood. There, he and Evelyn begin building a facility that will break new technological ground and, though their project is too big to hide, for some reason both R.I.F.T. and the FBI, who are working with Will and Evelyn's friend, Joseph Tagger (Morgan Freeman), choose to do nothing about it for 2 years. In that time the project has grown in leaps and bounds and, unbeknownst to Evelyn, Will has started to push into a new phase which will see him not only creating a network with all the computers in the world, but will also allow him to network and control human beings, turning them from autonomous people into a hive to do his bidding. When Evelyn realizes what he's doing, she's horrified but also torn. To destroy the quantum computer would be to destroy what's left of Will and, besides, his reach is now so great that the only way to destroy him would be to turn the whole world dark.
Transcendence is the directorial debut of Wally Pfister, best known for his Oscar winning work as a cinematographer (he has worked on all of Christopher Nolan's films from Memento onward, winning an Oscar for Inception), and as a result the film is often visually arresting (cinematography here was handled by Jess Hall), juxtaposing the ragged, off-the-grid existence of Max and the R.I.F.T. members against the clean, sterile environment of Will and Evelyn's lab, which is marked by large swaths of white, empty space. However, for every interesting image the film comes up with, it also gives you a twist or plot point that makes it an increasing challenge to suspend disbelief. Digital Will begins creating what the FBI refers to as an army by healing the sick with nano-particles that keep the patients connected to him thereafter and also give them super human abilities (such as strength and speed) because, sure, whatever. It also allows them to take multiple bullets and be instantly healed as long as they remain connected to Will. Will is also eventually able to create a new corporeal form that is identical to that of the once-living Will, because you don't shell out that many millions of dollars to hire Johnny Depp and then confine him to a computer screen for the entire movie.
As a story, Transcendence is something of a mess. It presents itself as if it's serious, thinking person's science fiction and yet it ends like every mindless action movie, resolving everything with mayhem and bullets, and then adds insult to injury by suggesting that everything that just unfolded was all about love and the strength of the bond between Evelyn and Will and their willingness to do anything to stay together. That's nice and all, but it's too bad that love drove Evelyn to be a technological Eve, whose encouragement prompts Will to gain knowledge he's not meant to have, resulting in humanity being cast out of a paradise in which the effects of pollution are reversed and disease is eradicated, and left to start over in darkness instead. Seriously, the end of this movie is so lame and so much of what precedes it is so dumb. But, hey, if you were ever curious about whether Rebecca Hall could sell the idea that she's in a genuine relationship with a computer screen - complete with passive aggressive silence during dinner - then Transcendence can at least answer that question with a "yes."