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"Transcendence" wants to ask the big questions, about the positives and negatives of technology in an increasingly online world.What are the limits? How far can artificial intelligence go before it becomes a detriment instead of a benefit? What would make Johnny Depp more engaged in this movie?OK, some things, particularly regarding that last, will forever remain a mystery. But the real problem here is that, although the film does get around to asking these questions, the answers are out of its reach. It looks good — first-time director Wally Pfister has long worked as Christopher Nolan's cinematogrpaher — but it's not as smart as it should be.
Will Caster (Depp) is a genius scientist type, who works to further the advances of artificial intelligence. He's in it for the science, while his wife Evelyn (Rebecca Hall) wants to use the technology to "heal the planet." Their pal Max Waters (Paul Bettany) sees promise in curing diseases but also warns of science overstepping its bounds.A coordinated attack by anti-technology terrorists on artificial-intelligence labs leaves many researchers dead and wounded; an assassination attempt on Will has fatal implications. But Evelyn and Max figure out how to upload Will's consciousness to a supercomputer of Will's design called PINN,(Watch Transcendence Online) for Physically Integrated Neural Network.But is the result really Will? This should be the question at the center of the movie, but it comes and goes as the anti-tech bunch plots to stem the reach of the artificial-intelligence supporters, who, at Will's behest, are building a massive computer, as Will's (or "Will's?") intelligence grows ever stronger. His actions, and the motives behind them, are drawn into question.
This is where Depp's performance could have helped out a lot. Look no further than Scarlett Johansson's turn in last year's "Her," in which she provided the voice for a computer operating system, to see how this should be done. But where she was fully engaged, Depp seems remote, distant. Maybe Will is preoccupied with increasing his intelligence,(Watch Transcendence Online) but it drags things down a bit.Morgan Freeman is on hand as Will's mentor, who knows what's really what; a quick (and, tellingly, low-tech) scene with Hall is effective.Shouldn’t a future America ruled by a disembodied Johnny Depp—playing an artificial intelligence on the rampage—be a lot more zany than this dull-as-computer-code thriller? Transcendence isn’t going to win any comparisons with last year’s Her (a pocket version of the same general concept), and you wonder why Depp signed on to the staid role of Will Caster, a Berkeley genius whose Einstein-shaggy hairdo would suggest someone dottier.
Before Will is critically wounded in an act of anticomputer terrorism, the film introduces some warmly geeky characters, all on a first-name basis: Evelyn (Rebecca Hall, the fluttering heart of the film) is Will’s fund-raiser, researcher and wife; Max (Paul Bettany) is their brilliant best friend; and Joseph (Morgan Freeman) is a government-supported scientist who smells something bad in the air.The human element—including much of the audience’s interest—is largely jettisoned, though, after Will’s brain gets wired to the Web, he’s reborn as a mildly annoying overlord and husband, and microscopic nanobots begin to swarm into unsuspecting bodies.(Watch Transcendence Online) While Transcendence has tons of money to spend on unpersuasive digital effects and dronelike music, it shows little interest in exploring the potentially tricky benefits of a computer-enhanced intellect; it’s not even in the enjoyable realm of starkly ridiculous Cold War thrillers like Colossus: The Forbin Project. You won’t be able to follow multiple subplots, nor will you care why Kate Mara is running around looking nervous.
The blame must go to Wally Pfister, normally a gifted cameraman for Christopher Nolan but here, making his directorial debut, an uncertain helmer who tears too many pages out of his ex-boss’s humorless playbook—while forgetting to make his visuals dazzle. Reboot.But as happens so often, good ideas eventually give way to a pretty rote conclusion, one telegraphed by the framing device Pfister and screenwriter Jack Paglen employ.Too bad. Despite its looks, talent and pedigree,(Watch Transcendence Online) "Transcendence" never becomes the movie it could have been.“Transcendence” is a movie that’s of two minds. It’s well-grounded, but also over the top. It’s a man-vs.-machine epic and also an intimate drama. It’s quirky-smart yet sci-fi silly.And it winds up being half as good as it could be.Johnny Depp is Dr. Will Caster, a brilliant scientist working with his wife Evelyn (sexy Rebecca Hall) and fellow researcher Max (Paul Bettany) on startling advancements in artificial intelligence. The team hopes to build a computerized “brain” that would be self-sustaining and ever-evolving, able to cure diseases and save the planet.
But while at a conference, an anti-tech terrorist shoots Will with a radiation-tipped bullet. With weeks to live, Will, Evelyn and Max decide to plug electrodes into Will’s brain and “upload his consciousness” into a supercomputer they’ve built under a desert town.Two years later, Will’s sentient, computerized self is an omniscient, powerful force that uses nanotechnology, and his own brilliance, to heal people. Except he doesn’t just make them well. He makes them stronger,(Watch Transcendence Online) and implants chips in their heads that allows him to communicate with these “hybrid humans.”As Max teams up with the leader of a radical group (Kate Mara), the government “shuts down the Internet” to shut Will himself down. Meanwhile, Evelyn attempts a dangerous gambit by begging Will to upload her into the computer, too.That’s a lot of plot. And there are additional twists that link the movie to everything from “Frankenstein” to “Colossus: The Forbin Project” to “The Terminal Man,” “The Matrix” and even last year’s artificial-intelligence love story “Her.” Director Wally Pfister was the director of photography on “Inception,” which is yet another strand in the DNA of Jack Paglen’s script.
This all works for a while in a spooky way. Depp is skittish and sad-eyed. Once in the computer, his HAL 9000-like calmness and image on multiple screens is supremely weird. (The production design, though, veers from “12 Monkeys”-style rustic to a computer-filled bunker that feels like an aisle at Best Buy.)Will dies — but his brain lives. As everyone knows, that’s asking for trouble.Hall and Bettany lend solid support. There are also good actors around the edges — Mara, Morgan Freeman,(Watch Transcendence Online) Cillian Murphy, Clifton Collins Jr. — playing characters without much to do.Then the film implodes. It doesn’t make much sense when Will’s creating particles to float up from the ground and impact the atmosphere. The limitations of the story become obvious, battling the energy and verve Pfister’s plugged into.In the end, the ideas in “Transcendence” may be electric, but a lot goes haywire.An intriguing start quickly plummets into a goofy sci-fi thriller, never rising from its traditional roots.A surprisingly lifeless Johnny Depp stars the leading researcher in the field of Artificial Intelligence.
Headstrong, Will (get it?) insists his work be used to bring him back to a kind of life after he has been assassinated. Then he will be able to continue his work with his wife, either using her to create his ultimate vision or by inhabiting somebody else’s body to spend time with her doing something else. If you know what I mean.Rebecca Hall and Morgan Freeman lead the cast of smarty-pants collaborators, some of who get the reality of this experiment earlier than do others.(Watch Transcendence Online) Poor Paul Bettany appears to have a rather substantial role until he is shoved off into some grimy prison by Kate Mara’s equally grubby street avengers. Jack Paglen’s zigzagging script abruptly turns those longhaired violence-loving hippies into government collaborators, which allows Bettany to reappear, the pasty scientist suddenly turned strapping sharp shooter. I tried not to laugh out loud.
It’s no surprise cinematographer-turned-director Wally Pfister has delivered a great looking movie, but someone has to tell him (and every other filmmaker who has done the same thing) that while your leading lady may look very snazzy sporting a slim white shirt, this is not a smart idea. I, myself, did transcend watching this movie, mesmerized by Rebecca Hall’s miraculous blouse that, after dust storms, nearby explosions and sweat inducing escapes, still dazzled in its white splendor,(Watch Transcendence Online) impervious to grime. Now that’s science we can use!At long last, Johnny Depp returns to a role that forces him to act, not just ham it up. That departure is one of the most appealing aspects of the muddled but well-intended sci-fi mind-tripper "Transcendence." Other minor incidentals, such as how the film opens in what's described as an Internet-deprived Berkeley of the near future and later references Lawrence Livermore Lab, give it Bay Area relevance.Beyond that provincialism and the snazzy visuals and relevant premise, this cautionary man vs.
computer tale from first-time director Wally Pfister is a bit of a slog, interesting in patches, but boring in stretches. And while its discussions about supercomputers, transcendence and god complexes send red flags flying about the near future, the story's mainframe is faultily wired and in need of repair."Transcendence" wrestles with a cutting-edge theme -- man's escalating pursuit of a mega-computer that will harness all collective intelligence and possess a soul -- but it offers no startling insights about the "Frankenstein" possibilities that premise raises.(Watch Transcendence Online) Literally, there's more talk than action and that, along with underdeveloped elements in Jack Paglen's screenplay, drag it down.Depp plays the brilliant -- we know he is because we keep hearing him referred to as such -- Dr. Will Caster, a research scientist who specializes in artificial intelligence. Looking disheveled in that sexy Depp way, the actor smartly makes Will, who becomes a target of violent anti-tech zealots, both eccentric and enigmatic.
That benefits the narrative's progression as Will's intentions become more circumspect once his wife, Evelyn (Rebecca Hall), decides, along with their friend Max Winters (Paul Bettany), to essentially download -- or would that be upload? -- him to a sentient computer Will created named PINN, or Physically Independent Neural Network.Is Evelyn, played with passionate conviction by Hall, venturing into dangerous territory to make the world a better place? Or is she so blinded by grief that she can't let go of Will? And is that really Will popping up on-screen?Naturally,(Watch Transcendence Online) revealing too much spoils the fun. But the real disappointment is how the screenplay shortchanges certain key characters. Case in point: Anti-tech ringleader Bree (Kate Mara of "House of Cards") is given minimal dialogue, even though she's essential to the plot. Simply putting a blonde wig on Mara and having her chat for a bit at a bar doesn't expand on what the RIFT (Revolutionary Independence From Technology) group is really all about.
Joseph Tagger, a friend of the Casters and a computer expert, is treated with the same lack of depth. We never get a reasonable gauge on who he is, but since he's played by Morgan Freeman, he commands more respect than the role deserves.That "Transcendence" spends more time talking about computers than creating live human characters is even more problematic, because the romance between Will and Evelyn is so key to what happens. Pfister and Paglen give us satisfying hints of their love at the start,(Watch Transcendence Online HQ) but more is needed. On the upside, Pfister has crafted a subtle and convincing not-so-distant future, and once again, this Oscar-winning cinematographer of "Inception" hits the highest of visual notes.But when it comes to modern techie anxiety and love connections, Spike Jonze's "Her" juggled the topic with more dexterity. True, "Transcendence" has a different approach and thematic goals. But which of the two films results in the conversation starter it so strives to be? Hands down it would be "Her." And you don't need a supercomputer to figure that one out.
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