Though its plot and premise are pure science fiction, “Transcendence” goes pleasingly against the genre grain.
A story of the possible perils and pleasures of artificial intelligence that stars Johnny Depp, “Transcendence’s” ideas are at least as involving as its images, if not more so. And as written by Jack Paglen and directed by Wally Pfister, this film is intent on not limiting itself to simplistic questions of pure good and evil.
As “Transcendence’s” narrative of the battle between pro and anti-technology forces unfolds, justice is done to the complicated factors at play here. Determining with certainty whom the heroes and villains of this narrative are is not so easily done.
Though Pfister is well-known as Christopher Nolan’s longtime cinematographer (nominated for four Oscars, a winner for “Inception”), both he and screenwriter Paglen are first-timers in their respective chairs, and there are times when that shows. “Transcendence’s” exposition is not always sharp, emotional connections (with the exception of Depp’s outstanding costar, Rebecca Hall) are not its strength, and it does not make memorable use of its Imax format.
But because the underlying ideas are involving, those problems fade from view, leaving us with an ambitious and provocative piece of work that is intriguingly balanced between being a warning and a celebration.
Certainly the boon-or-bane question of artificial intelligence has been a movie staple at least since the days of HAL 9000 in Stanley Kubrick’s “2001.” (In fact, a purely negative example of some of this film’s ideas appears in the current “Captain America: Winter Soldier.”)
“Transcendence” begins in the near future, maybe as close as tomorrow. Narrator Max Waters (an excellent Paul Bettany) walks through the streets of a Berkeley patrolled by armed soldiers. The city —- and every other city, we soon learn — is in the grip of some kind of worldwide power blackout.
Max walks to a classic wood shingle Berkeley house, now in ruins but once the home of Dr. Will Caster (Depp) and his wife, Evelyn (Hall). Max knew them better than anyone, he says, and he is prepared to vouch for the fact that they wanted nothing but the best for humanity.
Back we go five years, to the bulk of “Transcendence’s” story. Depp’s Will is a brilliant scientist, distracted in a Disney Gyro Gearloose kind of way but enough of a celebrated futurist to have people asking for signatures on his Wired magazine cover story.
Evelyn is the more focused half of the couple, eager to raise money for the practical applications of Will’s ideas, which means attendance at an Evolve the Future conference where the good doctor talks about the lure of what he calls transcendence.
“Once online, a sentient machine will quickly overcome the limits of biology,” he says. “Its analytical power will be greater than the collective intelligence of every person born in the history of the world. Imagine such an entity with the full range of emotions, even self-awareness.”
For some people in the audience, that is not a dream but a nightmare. These are the members of RIFT (Revolutionary Independence From Technology, if you must know), “Unplug” tattoos on their forearms and anarchic mayhem in their hearts. In fact their leader, Bree (Kate Mara), looks so clearly deranged it’s amazing she was even allowed in the auditorium.
RIFT soon does its worst, and as an end result Will ends up with only a few weeks to live. Though the couple’s best friend, Max, expresses doubts, Rebecca sees only one way out, a scenario that involves yet another acronym, PINN.
That would be the Physically Independent Neural Network artificial intelligence system Will has created. Rebecca decides to upload her husband’s mind to PINN’s core. “We can save him,” she insists to Max’s dismay, and though the experiment appears to succeed, the much more complex question becomes: at what cost to humanity.
Once Will is fully inside the machine, “Transcendence’s” main action begins and the film becomes more involving. Because Depp’s mechanical performance is nothing to write home about, the film counts on Hall’s great ability to join intelligence with empathy. (Those who haven’t seen her and “Spider-Man” Andrew Garfield co-star in the first part of 2009’s “Red Riding Trilogy” should catch up now.)
Initially, what we see is all the things this smartest-entity-ever puts into motion, how it keeps itself alive and how it works to increase its range and power. Just as interesting, however, are the conflicts, doubts and fears that Will’s transformation causes, not the least of them being Max’s worry about whether that it is really Will inside the machine and not some bizarre iteration with a mind of its own.
Most pointed is the resistance many of “Transcendence’s” characters feel to Will’s evolution into what they call “an unnatural abomination and a threat to humanity.” Are their qualms justified, or is it a question that, as someone says, “people fear what they don’t understand.” These are very difficult questions, and the best thing about “Transcendence” is that it refuses to pretend otherwise.
MPAA rating: PG-13 for sci-fi action and violence, some blood images, brief strong language and sensuality
Running time: 1 hour, 59 minutes
Playing: In general release