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High-minded ‘Transcendence’ is less-than-exceptional sci-fi fare

Friday, April 18, 2014
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Johnny Depp stars as scientist Will Caster in "Transcendence." (Warner Bros.)
Johnny Depp stars as scientist Will Caster in "Transcendence." (Warner Bros.)

That man would have the hubris to reach the level of a god is a notion that has long animated both myth and literature. To see such ambition brought low is a story that never gets old, and that premise is the best part of “Transcendence,” a belabored science-fiction fantasy that aims for what its title advertises and falls far short.

In his first film as director, acclaimed cinematographer Wally Pfister (“The Dark Knight Rises,” “Inception”) has made a movie that predictably looks good but has little substance beneath its shiny, digitally enhanced surface.

Johnny Depp is Will Caster, the Tony Stark of artificial intelligence, a hotshot scientist and Wired cover boy on the verge of a breakthrough in the merging of man and machine that he believes could be the answer to hunger, disease and other global ills. His best hope is a computer called PINN (Physically Independent Neural Network).

But the work he and his colleagues — including his wife, Evelyn (Rebecca Hall), and best friend Max (Paul Bettany) — are doing has sparked opposition from a terrorist group called RIFT (Revolutionary Independence from Technology). This outfit — whose slogan is “evolution without technology” — wants to unplug humanity from machines altogether.

Running out of time

This doesn’t include explosive devices and guns, though, and the group uses them to take out many of those working with Depp and another AI pioneer, Joseph Tagger (Morgan Freeman). Their attempt on Will’s life at first seems to have failed — he is shot but survives — but then it turns out the bullet was coated with a radioactive material. With only weeks to live, Will, along with Evelyn and Max, decide to upload Will’s mind into PINN so that his brilliance is preserved.

'Transcendence'

DIRECTED BY: Wally Pfister

STARRING: Johnny Depp, Morgan Freeman, Rebecca Hall and Paul Bettany

RATED: PG-13 GRADE: D

RUNNING TIME: 119 minutes

Of course, the law of unintended consequences being what it is, Will’s ego and sense of power increase exponentially once his mind is paired with the seemingly limitless power of a machine that can tap into all of the world’s computers and see everything everywhere. Will wants to eradicate cancer and conflict — a good thing — but seeks to link everyone in a “hive mind” with him at the controls. Not so good.

That’s when both Evelyn and Max, who are totally Team Will at first, come to the realization that maybe this man-machine thing wasn’t such a bright idea after all.

While “Transcendence” has nothing new to say about absolute power corrupting absolutely or the friction between technology and humanity, it still could have been an engaging thriller. But it’s lined with plot holes so big that they take you right out of the movie.

For example, Evelyn, while still in Will’s thrall, marches into a desert town with millions wired into her bank account by all-powerful Will, hires a crew of local ne’er-do-wells and then seemingly overnight secretly builds a sprawling, wired campus that makes Google headquarters look like a tiki shack. It’s from here that Will, like The Brain on the old “Pinky and the Brain” cartoons, plans to take over the world. But wouldn’t someone take notice? The local power company? The mayor? The NSA?

And then the explosions start and “Transcendence” goes the way of so many big-budget movies where performances are subservient to special effects. But even on this basic level, “Transcendence” isn’t very special.

Humanity’s hubris may indeed be dangerous, but Hollywood’s is just boring.

 
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