Man’s unhealthy relationship with technology takes a sinister turn in Wally Pfister’s ham-fisted sci-fi thriller, which imagines the consequences of an artificial intelligence running amok in the digital realm.
The high-brow concept of Jack Paglen’s undernourished script is at odds with the whizz-bang pyrotechnics that director Pfister is asked to deliver in the muddled second act, ultimately starving the film of jeopardy.
Characters are poorly developed and the line between the supposedly evil computer and valiant human rebels is blurred to the point that we couldn’t care less if our entire species is wiped out.
Transcendence opens in Berkeley, California in the aftermath of a global blackout.
The narrative rewinds to the same location five years earlier, where Dr Max Waters’s (Paul Bettany) good friend Dr Will Caster (Depp), a pioneer in the field of artificial intelligence, lives with his wife Evelyn (Rebecca Hall).
They are at the forefront of a scientific movement, which hopes to create a machine with sentience.
Extremists called RIFT (Revolutionary Independence From Technology) oppose this advancement and shoot Will with a polonium-tainted bullet. Doctors give Dr Caster a month to live so Evelyn suggests her beau continues his work by uploading his mind to a super-computer.
When Evelyn uploads him to the internet, he infiltrates every hard drive on the planet, becoming an insidious influence.
Transcendence begins promisingly, setting out Will and Eve’s utopian vision of cutting-edge technology to heal the planet and eradicate disease.
But screenwriter Paglen struggles to sustain dramatic momentum. And Depp’s lifeless performance suggests a robotic doppelganger was hired to take his place while Hall and Bettany are tortured and tearful, wrestling with murky questions of morality that seem beyond the film’s flimsy grasp.
If the end point – a world starved of electricity and gadgets – halts screenings of Pfister’s film then perhaps there is method in RIFT’s muddled madness.