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Review: Transcendence

With the rise of new technology has come an obsession with said technology. Twenty years ago hardly anyone had personal computers, but now it's not uncommon for people to be "plugged in" for upwards of twelve hours a day. Technological thrillers that warned of the dangers of blindly submitting to these new inventions disappeared from the landscape as consumer electronics and computers gained popularity, but now Transcendence aims to serve as Frankenstein for a new era.

Dr. Will Caster (Johnny Depp) has devoted his life, along with his wife Evelyn (Rebecca Hall) to researching the singularity. Will and Evelyn Caster are truly made for one another. They bounce off each other remarkably well in the laboratory and when the Casters go home they share wine and music and laughs. In many ways, Transcendence is much more focused on the relationship between Evelyn and her husband than a mad scientist versus humanity, but as with any film with a budget over $100 million, the battles win out. A shame since both Depp and Hall share an easy magnetism that could carry a film in itself.

“Imagine a machine with the full range of human emotion. Its analytical power will be greater than the collective intelligence of every person in the history of the world. Some scientists refer to this as the singularity. I call it transcendence.”
The good doctor says this to an audience that is simultaneously awed, and in fear of the world he projects. Hecklers make their objections to his claims, but he shrugs them off.

Will’s rock-star status in the scientific field makes him famous, but also a target in the eyes of anti-technology extremists, called RIFT, who will do whatever it takes to stop him. And just when Will is closest to reaching his goal of creating a computer capable of channeling human emotion, he is struck down. All of the work is destroyed and Will is dying from radiation poisoning. Everything they have built together is gone.

Left with the choice of saying goodbye to her husband, Evelyn chooses a riskier alternative in uploading Will's consciousness into a computer. Consulting her in that decision is friend and neurobiologist, Max Waters (Paul Bettany). Waters is hesitant to join Evelyn in her decision. If any facet of Will's personality is missing than what they upload could be drastically different from who he was.

The experiment takes off better than Evelyn and Waters could have hoped, but with Will now online he is capable of growing infinitely larger by copying himself billions of times over. Torn between her devotion to Will and her ever-growing concerns, Evelyn has doubts of how much of her husband actually came through in the process of wiring Will in.

Short of explaining all of the Caster's work, writer Jack Paglen only really goes to lengths to explain what singularity is: the convergence of artificial and human intelligence. Pfister wisely chooses to glide over most of these subjects so that the lingering mind doesn't pick apart too many implausible moments.

Johnny Depp has been hamming it up as of late in one eccentric role or another for Tim Burton or Gore Verbinski, but Mr. Depp has dropped the funny hats and white-face for a more adult  corduroy jacket here. It's a nice change of pace after so many roles as weirdos. Even a leading man can't wholly subsist on quirky roles alone before it becomes a drag on audiences.

The real performance to hang your hat on is in the hands of Rebecca Hall. As Will takes on his digital form, more of the focus is thrust on Evelyn and Hall handles it beautifully. In a role reversal of sorts the Dr. Frankenstein of the story is not Dr. Caster, but Evelyn herself, determined to end death and change the world for the better. It's a great part for an actress who often is relegated to side roles, and she makes the most of her screentime.

Through no fault of its own, Transcendence has a few issues due to the very revealing nature of the television spots and trailers plastered all over the web and television. The film abandons characters and ideas a little too easily for some, but it does treat the issues of loss a more provoking fashion than any potential conflicts with the morality of Will's actions or the evolution of A.I. In this regard the film is easy to label as toothless because the sliding morality allows for certain members of the cast to switch allegiances at any moment, but really only RIFT has any traces of being villains. Being asked to side with them feels not only distasteful, but assinine.

Longtime Christopher Nolan collaborator Wally Pfister makes his directorial debut, handing cinematographer's duties to Jess Hall (Hot Fuzz), though his hand can still be seen in many shots evoking allusions of The Dark Knight trilogy.  The film may lose pace, but the sites onscreen are never boring with all of the shadow play, glossy surfaces and corridors that seemingly go on forever.

An interesting angle that lingers below the surface of the story is Pfister's resistance to technology in his own field. Transcendence is shot on film and avoided the 3D conversion that may have happened without Pfister at the helm. It's a nice piece of irony and another talking point that isn't always followed through onscreen, but discussed among moviegoers after the credits have rolled. For all of the great parts that make up Transcendence, it bites off more than it can chew. Pfister's film is still worth a watch, just don't expect cerebral sci-fi in the vein of 2001.

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