2.5 stars (out of four)
Wally Pfister’s Transcendence isn’t the alarm-ringing saga of mechanical mayhem it aspires to be, having come late to the notion of silicon slavery.
Filmmakers have contemplated a machine takeover of mankind since at least 1927, when Fritz Lang’s Metropolis employed Brigitte Helm as a scarily sexy robot-human hybrid. Similar fears have been explored in 2001: A Space Odyssey, The Matrix Trilogy, The Lawnmower Man and innumerable other movies.
What Transcendence has going for it is evolution rather than revolution: the real and advancing dread that we’re slowly losing our humanity as we embrace all things plugged-in and online. The dawn of sentient computers — the “transcendence” of the title — may truly be upon us, and it’s not a good feeling.
So frets first-time director Pfister, best known as Christopher Nolan’s director of photography. He’s assembled a good cast, a few strong images and a workmanlike script by Jack Paglen (another rookie) to craft a cautionary tale that is at once visionary and myopic.
Johnny Depp is Dr. Will Caster, a leading researcher in artificial intelligence who is close to making a scientific breakthrough, with the assistance of his wife and fellow brainiac Evelyn (Rebecca Hall).
Together they toil on PINN (Physically Independent Neural Network), a smart-machine project that Caster naively assumes will only be used for good things, such as finding cures for cancer and Alzheimer’s.
An ambush by an anti-technology group — either terrorists or heroes, depending on your point of view — sets in motion events that will not only drastically change Caster’s existence, but that of everybody on Earth.
Caster becomes one with the machine (“My mind has been set free”) and also malevolent, using his newly obtained powers and the globe-spanning Internet to exploit and enslave people. He manipulates both the stock market and human DNA to buy land and create an army of cyborgs, obviously figuring that the Metropolis machine-human was a good idea.
Seeking to stop him are two other scientists, played by Paul Bettany and Morgan Freeman, who have developed serious misgivings about technology; a brave but bootless FBI man (Cillian Murphy); and the determined anti-techno group leader (Kate Mara), who looks less like a terrorist and more like a hero with each whir and clank of Caster’s takeover plan.
Pfister wants us to seriously think about the dangers of unchecked mechanization, going so far as to include numerous close-ups of water — from droplets to puddles — that are obviously meant as a Malickian mediation on things natural and real.
The latter includes some genuine chemistry between Depp and Hall, which puts heart and soul into this machine.
Little attempt is made to surprise us. The film opens five years past the events of the main narrative, with Bettany’s Max Waters, best friend to Caster, walking through a completely unplugged Berkeley, Calif.
He mutters via voice-over how “things are far from what they were” now that the Internet is gone and electricity is but a rumour.
Spoiler alert needed? Only if you’ve never seen a movie about uppity machines before.
Transcendence follows such a predictable path, it’s almost as if — shudder — it had been made by very thoughtful robots.
Peter Howell is a syndicated Toronto Star movie critic.