Artificial intelligence has a long and sordid past in cinema. Often paired with frightening robotic vessels and an apathetic homicidal demeanor, few incarnations depict sentient beings born out of man’s technology as caring, emotional or kind. They often want to wipe out or control humanity out of self-interest, or some programed directive gone awry. HAL 9000, Skynet, Agent Smith of The Matrix, the Puppet Master of Ghost in the Shell, fembots, all would gladly see all of us die. Okay, the fembots weren’t artificially intelligent, but they were the scariest androids of them all! On the other side of the coin, there have been some great, friendly A.I.s to remind us that it’s also possible that we are, in fact, not hurtling toward our own downfall at the hands of our new robotic overlords. The Iron Giant, Walle, and the recent Her give us hope. Transcendence, to its benefit, forgoes drawing a definite line in the sand on whether the A.I. depicted is benign or hostile. The question remains throughout.
Transcendence stars Johnny Depp as Will Caster, Rebecca Hall as his wife Evelyn Caster, Paul Bettany and Morgan Freeman. They are computer scientists on the verge of creating the first artificial intelligence. When a radical group of anti-technologists, fearful of the threat an A.I. could pose to humanity, attack research facilities and shoot Will with bullets laced with radiation, they decide to map and upload Will’s consciousness to a computer in an effort to save him. From there it is Will and Evelyn against the world.
The film if directed by Wally Pfister, long time cinematographer of Christopher Nolan. As such, there are some beautiful shots throughout the movie, especially with water (a recurring motif). The leads do a fine job with the roles they are given, and there are some interesting ideas and graphics presented. The film tries to balance plot and character development equally, and is successful on that front, but neither aspect ends up feeling substantial. What we are left with is an interesting movie that feels thin. The plot feels like it should be bigger and more complex then it becomes, that it should have more weight in the world beyond the characters involved.
On the plus side, it’s fun to never be quite sure what A.I. Johnny Depp’s true intentions are. Is he a power hungry program bent on controlling the world? Is he a true representation of his former self thinking only of his and Evelyn’s survival? Is he trying to make the world a better place or trying to change the world to better suit himself? You may be surprised by the ultimate answer.
All in all, although the film did not feel that substantial, it was still an interesting experience that raised some thought-provoking questions, even if these ideas are under-explored.