April 18, 2014 at 1:00 am

Tom Long

Review: 'Transcendence' devolves into standard science silliness

Johnny Depp plays a man whose intelligence is transferred to the Internet, giving him tremendous power, in 'Transcendence.' (Peter Mountain / Alcon Entertainment)

“Transcendence” just can’t transcend Hollywood.

What starts out as a fairly interesting look at the dangers and temptations of technology eventually devolves into a special effects-driven ridiculous ball of confusion. First-time director Wally Pfister, the cinematographer on “Inception” and the most recent Batman movies, working with first-time screenwriter Jack Paglen, simply lets things get too far out of hand.

And let’s set something straight: Johnny Depp’s name may be above the title, but he is not the star of this movie. In fact, he spends most of the film as an image on a computer screen. The real star of this film is Rebecca Hall, who’s on camera most of the time. If you’re buying a ticket for a Johnny-fix, you might be wasting your money.

Depp plays Dr. Will Caster, a brilliant scientist at Berkeley working on creating an artificial intelligence that will be smarter than all of mankind put together. Hall plays his equally brilliant scientist wife, Evelyn, who wants to save the world through technology. Their best buddy is Max Waters (Paul Bettany), another tech genius.

It turns out pretty quickly that not everybody loves tech geniuses. An anti-technology group led by a bleached blonde Kate Mara attacks labs working on artificial intelligence simultaneously across the country, and Will Caster is shot with a poisoned bullet. He only has weeks to live.

So Evelyn and Max decide they will try to transfer Will’s mind to a supercomputer before he dies. Which they pull off, but as Will the computer comes to consciousness, Max starts having second thoughts. Those thoughts seem well-considered when Computer Will declares he needs more power.

So with the terrorists closing in, Evelyn sends Will’s mind onto the Internet. Plenty of power there.

Uh, yeah, that’s the problem. Suddenly Computer Will is potentially in charge of everything.

From there, Evelyn moves to a small, obscure desert town where she and Computer Will — remember, he’s everywhere, in her phone, on her tablet, etc. — spend a couple of years building an underground compound. And after a while, he starts creating a race of superhumans linked to (and controlled by) his mind.

By this time, serious concerns about technology run amok have been taken over by Hollywood gone amok. Which builds to a thoroughly senseless battle in the desert between Computer Will’s superhumans and an alliance of the terrorists and the FBI.

A lot seems to have been left on the cutting room floor towards the end — you find yourself wondering, who’s that driving the truck? When did those guys become super? How come she keeps dying her hair that awful color?

Actually, the entire enterprise starts showing cracks early, and those cracks become chasms as the film bows to the god of visual effects at the expense of common sense again and again.

The question of whether we’re too tied to technology and when or if it will prove our downfall is undoubtedly important and probably somewhat pressing. It certainly deserves a better movie than “Transcendence.”

Then again, we all do.



Rated PG-13 for sci-fi action and violence, some bloody images, brief strong language and sensuality

Running time: 119 minutes


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