Something truly brilliant happens toward the end of “Transcendence.” Honest. I’m in a hurry to tell you about it because the movie is otherwise such a tedious turkey that it’s almost impossible to pick up on it when it happens.
And I want to be nice for Easter weekend.
What we hear from one of the principal actors – Paul Bettany – is an exceptionally acute analysis of the plot that could have exploded into all kinds of wild, unexpected developments. But no, the movie just keeps on plodding slowly to its drippy ending with no regard for the audience’s impatience whatsoever. And considering that the movie’s ending is indeed apocalyptic, being so boring about it really took some doing.
The brilliant little wrinkle is this: as scientist Bettany explains to fellow scientist Rebecca Hall, it wasn’t her late husband (Johnny Depp) who mutated into a power-hungry computer system which is stockpiling information and an army of hybrid creatures of both flesh and artificial intelligence – creatures that can lift 800 pounds. It was somebody else, really, somebody close to him whom he trusted completely.
And then Bettany explains why he thinks so.
And there I was at that moment, practically exhausted by the movie’s dreadfulness saying to myself “Whoa! Hold the phone. That’s interesting. A decent movie could make something out of that – a whole lot of dramatic and cool somethings, in fact.”
Not this baby, which is as disappointing as any movie I’ve seen all year. It’s an unsuccessful hybrid of romantic melodrama and apocalyptic sci-fi thriller in which neither constituent part is at all involving in the slightest.
The latter could have been. I had great hopes for this movie the minute I saw a movie trailer in which Depp as the scientist with near-rock star fame says this: “For 130,000 years, our capacity to reason has remained unchanged. The combined intellect of the neuroscientists, mathematicians and engineers pales in comparison to the most basic A.I. (artificial intelligence). Once online, a sentient machine will quickly overcome the limits of biology; in short its analytic power will become greater than the collective intelligence of every person born in the history of the world. Some scientists refer to this as the singularity. I call it Transcendence.”
Gee. “Analytic power greater than the collective intelligence of every person born in the history of the world?” Even Sir Isaac Newton, Rachel Maddow, Lt. Columbo and the writers of “True Detective?” Yeah let’s definitely see that.
Well, I’ve seen it and I strongly advise against it on Easter Weekend. (Take some kids to “Bears” for pity’s sake. Can’t lose.)
Depp, for reasons known only to him, enabled this movie to be made by agreeing to star as the world-famous computer scientist working on A.I. programs because, as he quotes Einstein, “a new type of thinking is essential.”
Unfortunately a group of anti-computer luddite terrorists pretty much agrees with the scientist who opines “you want to create a God. Your own God.”
So they shoot the scientist with a radiation infected bullet. He dies and returns as a computer system with an insatiable appetite for solar power and a secret plan to take over the world.
If, like me, you’ve always wondered why on earth people in movies always want to conquer the universe (Steven Wright: “You can’t have everything. Where would you put it?”), you have to admit this guy is only doing his bit to make the world a place where “everything will exist just to serve its intelligence.” In other words, no more Honey Boo-Boo or Darwin Deniers.
There was a movie in all of that but this one isn’t it. It’s like a dreary and boring grandson of that’s naive 1950s sci-fi classic “Forbidden Planet” except that “Forbidden Planet” had the cool wrinkle of adapting Shakespeare’s “The Tempest” and locating all the invading hostility in Walter Pidgeon’s unconscious mind. It also had vast vistas of the ordinary civilization of that planet’s Krells that were much more imposing to look at than even IMAX images of huge vistas in computer rooms and solar energy fields stuffed into “Transcendence.”
One puzzle is why Depp caused this thing to be made by saying yes to it. Another is why all the ads and trailers for it are in a hurry to inform us that, yes, this is a film directed by Wally Pfister.
Who? You say. Don’t laugh. I can answer that one. Pfister is a genuinely great cinematographer, the man who shot “The Dark Knight,” “The Dark Knight Rises” and “Inception.”
As a cinematographer, he is transcendently gifted. In his directorial debut, I’m afraid, he fell down early and never got up.
Starring: Johnny Depp, Rebecca Hall, Morgan Freeman, Paul Bettany, Cillian Murphy
Director: Wally Pfister
Running time: 119 minutes
Rating: PG-13 for some bloody action, violence and language.
The Lowdown: An artificial intelligence scientist comes back after death as a computer system with ambitions to conquer the world.