“Transcendence” is a movie all about questions. Not because the plot is overly complex or difficult to follow, but because it raises so many ethical dilemmas. Has technology gone too far? Will technology bring us into a new age of enlightenment or be our ultimate downfall? Could technology one day give a person the power of a god? Should a person have the power of a god, even if they can benefit mankind? Johnny Depp is doing a non-period piece where he doesn’t wear a ton of makeup or put on an accent?
The film does indeed star a more tamed Johnny Depp as Dr. Will Caster, an artificial intelligence researcher developing a machine that will be virtually omniscience. Accused of trying to create a god, Will is assassinated by a group of extremists. Evelyn Caster, Will’s widowed wife played by Rebecca Hall, and Max Waters, Will’s best friend played by Paul Bettany, decide to finish what Will started. In the process, they discover a way to bring Will back from the dead, downloading his mind into a computer. Will is resurrected, assuming control of the Internet and everyone who becomes connected to him.
So let me guess what happens next. Will becomes mad with power, tries to take over the world, our eyes are opened to how reliant we’ve become on technology, same old, same old. Well … no, not exactly at least. Without giving too much away, Will uses his newfound power to potentially help mankind and lead us to a new stage in human evolution. To get to that stage, however, we’d have to sacrifice part of our humanity. This doesn’t sit well with an extremist leader played by Kate Mara, an FBI agent played by Cillian Murphy, or Will’s former colleague played by Morgan Freeman. They set out to shut Will down, but could risk setting humanity back 100 years along the way.
What’s interesting about “Transcendence” is that it’s not strictly anti-technology or pro-technology. The audience can understand the fearful mind set of the extremists while also seeing things from Will’s perspective. For a film with so many questions, it doesn’t have a ton of easy answers. First-time screenwriter Jack Paglen seems to mostly identify with Rebecca Hall’s character, a woman constantly torn between thinking with logic and thinking with emotion. Hall’s performance caries much of the film as she attempts to answer the greatest question of all: What constitutes a conscious being?
With its big ideas and engaging science fiction, there are times when “Transcendence” almost feels like a Christopher Nolan movie. Actually, Nolan did produce the film, but his longtime cinematographer Wally Pfister acts as director here. Pfister makes a solid directorial debut with a film that always looks great and is often interesting to follow.
“Transcendence” draws comparison to a fair deal of other science fiction stories, from “2001: A Space Odyssey” to the recent “Captain America: The Winter Solider.” The film everyone is bound to stack it up against is Spike Jonze’s “Her,” which also made commentary on the state of artificial intelligence. This movie really doesn’t come close to contending with “Her” because, while the ideas are definitely there, the audience’s emotional connection to the characters isn’t nearly as strong. Outside of maybe Hall’s Evelyn, everyone else often comes off as mere tools for exposition. That being said, “Transcendence” isn’t emotionless and it does certainly raise some interesting conversations. That’s more than can be said other recent movies that cost over a hundred million dollars to produce. So take it for what it’s worth.
• Ahwatukee native and Desert Vista graduate Nick Spake is a student at Arizona State University. He has been working as a film critic for five years, reviewing movies on his website, NICKPICKSFLICKS.com. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.