Transcendence (2014): Johnny Depp 2.0 hacks actual clouds
Feeling uneasy about how modern life has become hopelessly dependent upon technology? Then you may want to check out Transcendence, the first film from director Wally Pfister, best known for being Christopher Nolan’s cinematographer and winning an Oscar for Inception. His directorial debut attempts to ask big questions about whether it’s possible for technology to advance too far, and shows what might happen when artificial intelligence overtakes human intelligence. It may give you a reason to put down your smartphone, but more likely it’ll just put you to sleep.
Transcendence begins in the near future, where there have been huge breakthroughs in the field of artificial intelligence. A scientist named Dr. Will Caster (Johnny Depp) has come close to creating a computer that’s fully sentient. However, these advances have given rise to an anti-artificial intelligence terrorist group (yes, these exist in the world of this movie) called RIFT (Revolutionary Independence From Technology, of course) who are willing to do anything to stop Will and his research.
They pull off attacks on two of the labs behind the sentient computer, with Will’s colleague Joseph Tagger (Morgan Freeman) narrowly escaping death by not partaking of the same poisoned chocolate cake as his coworkers. And just after Will himself finishes giving a major lecture about the project, a RIFT member walks up and shoots him, and then turns the gun on himself.
At first, doctors consider Will very lucky, as the bullet missed his vital organs. He’s released from the hospital and begins cooperating with FBI agent Donald Buchanan (Cillian Murphy), who’s investigating the attacks. But then Will becomes gravely ill and finds himself back in the hospital, where his doctors discover he’s suffering from radiation poisoning. His would-be assassin used a bullet laced with radioactive polonium, which I’ll just assume is a thing that’s possible, and now Will only has a few weeks to live.
Will wants to put aside his work so he can spend the remaining time he has left with his wife Evelyn (Rebecca Hall), who’s also a scientist. But Evelyn reflects on an experiment where they successfully uploaded the consciousness of a monkey to a computer. This inspires her to try to do the same thing with her husband’s consciousness, which could take their work in building an artificially intelligent computer to the next level. Will agrees to the idea, and asks his friend Max (Paul Bettany) to help. And after weeks of uploading his own brain waves, memories, and voice samples, Will’s body finally gives out.
Evelyn goes through a short period of mourning, then she and Max power on the computer in hopes that some part of her husband’s personality survived. At first, it seems as if the experiment failed, and they’re ready to shut everything down and wipe the hard drives. But then the computer version of Will begins to reach out to Max and Evelyn with a few lines of onscreen text. They’re able to hook up a camera and microphone and have conversations with Will in his new form.
Will spends a few minutes adjusting to his new state of being, and recreating his old face on the screen, and then he immediately wants to get plugged into various large networks. Max finds the implications of this terrifying, and quickly realizes this experiment was a big mistake. He tells Evelyn to shut it down; however, she’s far too attached to the idea of having her husband back, and instead of seeing this as a major red flag, she tells Max to get out.
Shortly after leaving, Max is kidnapped by RIFT. He’s interrogated by the group’s ringleader (Kate Mara), who wants to know the whereabouts of the digital duplicate of Will Caster. After he spends some time in captivity, Kate reveals that RIFT itself is entirely based on Max’s ideology, as they were inspired to carry out their attacks because of his writings on the dangers of artificial intelligence. This inspires Max to join up with RIFT and help them stop Evelyn from uploading Will to the internet, but they’re too late, as Evelyn catches wind of the attack and quickly plugs Will into the grid.
Will now has access to untold amounts of information, and he soon surpasses the limits of human intelligence. He uses high-frequency trading to instantly earn millions of dollars, and instructs Evelyn to buy up property in a small craphole of a desert town called Brightwood. She journeys there and hires lots of workers to start construction on Will’s new headquarters.
We then skip ahead two years, and Evelyn and Will are now working in a sprawling lab/data center that has somehow gone unnoticed by the general public in all this time. And with Evelyn communicating with Will’s digital image on screens all around her, it’s as if he never died. Meanwhile, RIFT is on the run after Will accessed all their personal information and put Buchanan and the FBI on their trail.
Will has been experimenting with nanotechnology, and he’s used his limitless intelligence to invent nanobots that can self-replicate and generate any kind of matter possible. Basically, this means he now has godlike abilities to cure all diseases and heal all injuries. We see this in action after an incident where construction foreman Martin (Clifton Collins Jr.) is brutally attacked and left for dead. He’s rushed to the lab where Will uses his technology to repair his body and bring him back to life.
But it seems that Will also installed a couple of upgrades. For unclear reasons, Martin now has superhuman strength, and can lift an object that’s at least 800 pounds without breaking a sweat. Also, he has a brain implant that hooks him up to the network, allowing Will to take control of Martin’s body. He suggests he can now use Martin to be intimate with Evelyn again, but she’s understandably creeped out by the concept. And despite this being another huge red flag, Evelyn stays with him anyway.
RIFT obtains a video of Martin lifting huge objects and uploads it to the internet, supposedly for the purpose of getting people scared about what’s going on in Brightwood. But the video has the opposite effect, as the sick and injured flock to Will’s compound wanting to be magically healed. But little do they know this also means becoming part of Will’s neural network and giving him complete control over their bodies.
FBI agent Buchanan and Will’s old colleague Tagger decide to drop by and take a look around. Tagger immediately sees the danger of what’s happening, and secretly gives Evelyn a note telling her to get the hell out of Dodge. And again, she ignores another massive, billboard-sized red flag and decides to stay with Will.
That’s when Max and the RIFT gang stage a guerrilla attack on Will’s compound, only to find out their weapons are completely useless; anyone they shoot can instantly be healed by Will’s nanoparticles, and any piece of equipment they blow up can instantaneously be rebuilt.
Evelyn then discovers that Will has been using his technology to probe her brain and invade her thoughts, and this, of all things, finally inspires her to leave him. She gets taken in by the FBI, which is now working with RIFT (a federal agency teaming up with a terrorist group? Really?), and they realize the full extent of what Will is doing. Max explains that Will has literally uploaded himself to the cloud, or rather clouds, intending to rain his nanobots down upon the surface of the earth, and eventually control every living thing on the planet.
They decide the only way they can stop Will is by giving him a virus. They infect Evelyn’s body—with a computer virus, somehow—and they intend to stage an attack where she gets mortally wounded, which will force Will to connect her to the network to save her life, and thus infect him with the virus.
When Evelyn returns to the site, she’s taken aback to see that Will has used his nanobots to recreate his old body. For some reason, this makes the FBI and RIFT decide the virus plan isn’t going to work, so they switch to Plan B, which is basically blowing up everything in sight. Except, they already know from experience that blowing up the place will accomplish nothing, because Will can instantly rebuild everything.
Evelyn is injured, and Will is faced with the dilemma of letting her die or uploading the virus. After many more explosions, RIFT holds Max hostage and threatens to kill him if Will doesn’t surrender. Inexplicably, this tactic works, and Will basically offs himself and Evelyn by allowing the virus to be uploaded.
Oh, and did I mention that Will’s “death” has the effect of knocking out power to every city in the world, permanently? In hindsight, maybe the planet being ruled by a virtual overlord wasn’t so bad, after all. In the resulting post-apocalyptic landscape, Max wanders into Will and Evelyn’s old house and sees nanoparticles forming in a puddle, suggesting some part of Will survived.
The film has great visuals, as you’d expect from an Oscar-winning cinematographer. And it seems Pfister wanted to take a page from his mentor’s Inception playbook, and combine big ideas with lots of conventional action and suspense. Unfortunately, just like with Christopher Nolan’s films, the action isn’t very exciting, and it feels forced into the story because the filmmakers were afraid no one would care about a sci-fi movie without explosions and shootouts.
The story sometimes gets complicated, and Pfister doesn’t seem to know how to pace himself. There are scenes where far too much information is revealed all at once, followed by a lot of downtime and too many dull, plodding, predictable scenes. We can tell from very early on that the uploaded version of Will Caster is eventually going to lose his humanity and compassion for living things and turn evil, so for the most part we’re just waiting for everyone else to catch up and finally deal with him.
Transcendence has an incredible cast, but most of the characters are two-dimensional (in Depp’s case, literally two-dimensional, as he only exists on a computer screen) and seem to have zero chemistry with each other. Even the great Morgan Freeman can’t do much with a role this bland. The only real bright spot here is Rebecca Hall, who’s forced to provide the emotional counterpoint to Depp’s stoic visage and carry the whole movie on her own, and with a better script she certainly would have succeeded.
Overall, the movie’s introduction of various scientific concepts feels extremely rushed. They could have really gone into detail on some of these ideas, rather than just making it look like Caster suddenly had the magical ability to do pretty much anything. As a cautionary tale about our dependence on technology, this movie fails at getting its message across, since you’ll most likely spend the whole film glancing at your laptop or smartphone instead of paying attention to the story. Transcendence wants to warn us about the dangers of unchecked virtual consciousness, but mostly just induces unconsciousness.
[—This review contains additional material by Dr. Winston O’Boogie.]