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‘Transcendence’ fails to travel into creativity

“The internet was supposed to make the world a smaller place, but it actually feels smaller without it.”

Max Waters wanders around the overgrown slums of Berkeley, Calif., sentimentally peering in windows and faintly smiling, hands in pockets, at how positively different everything is now that technology, for whatever reason, no longer exists. Cracked BlackBerrys lay scattered about the streets. A man uses a keyboard as a doorstop. Meanwhile, people carry on, shuffling through the dusty streets and bartering for non-perishable foods. Max’s opening monologue poses a few questions, “Why?” being chief among them.

As details fill in, we realize that Max Waters (Paul Bettany) is only part of the bigger picture behind Transcendence. The real story begins with Dr. Will Caster (Johnny Depp), a prominent researcher of artificial intelligence who is on the verge of developing a machine with true sentience. “You want to create a god?” one audience member asks Will after his speech at a technology conference. He isn’t shy in his reply. Delivering the smuggest line in the entire film, Dr. Caster retorts with a question of his own: “Isn’t that what man has always done?” Groan.

That job ends up in the hands of Dr. Caster’s friends and colleagues when that same audience member shoots him after the conference. We then discover that this was only part of a series of attacks on A.I. laboratories by a mysterious new anti-technology terrorist organization called Revolutionary Independence From Technology, or R.I.F.T., Evelyn Caster — Will’s “partner in science and in life,” played by Rebecca Hall — quickly works with Max to preserve Will’s mind before his body dies. They succeed, we have to assume, after many a long tracking shot of whiteboard equations and power cables. Through some sort of science-magic, Will Caster’s consciousness has been digitized.

Or at least, we hope it is. Max expresses doubts early on about whether the computer they’re speaking to is actually Will. All the while, R.I.F.T. is hot on the trail, solidly determined to spoil the team’s efforts by unplugging Will.

By this point, it’s unclear who is in the wrong. Will obviously shouldn’t be trusted, especially once Evelyn connects him online — imagine giving HAL your Wi-Fi password. On the other hand, R.I.F.T. is shooting people and nobody ever gives a good reason why. Their leader, the mononymous Bree (Kate Mara), turns out to be one of Max’s former students who took his classroom debates about technological ethics and apparently ran with them. Given that she’s one leather jumpsuit and a little less eye makeup away from a role in a Bond film, one might as well pretend she has no motives at all.

If that’s the case, then what does that leave us with? Transcendence wrestles with too many interesting questions about consciousness, humanity and technology to be dismissed as dumb sci-fi fun, but it ultimately ends up losing the match. Worse still, it does so with the silliest mistakes. How, for instance, do the millions of dollars Will makes in stock trading fail to raise any alarms with the Securities and Exchange Commission? Is Evelyn’s grief so strong that she, an accomplished and brilliant scientist, can’t see the inherent dangers of plugging Will into the World Wide Web? Is there honestly no plot point that can’t be brought about by nanobots?

Jack Paglen’s script, which spent time on Hollywood’s famous “Black List” of popular yet unproduced screenplays, doesn’t seem interested in answering any of those questions. Instead, every theme is left frustratingly ambiguous. Do humans have the right to grant sentience? We can’t prove that anyone is sentient. Are we better off unplugged? Not really, but it’d be quieter.

The whole ordeal makes for a disappointing show all around, especially for Wally Pfister in his directorial debut. Pfister, better known for his cinematography work on a number of Christopher Nolan-helmed productions, definitely shows off his keen aesthetic eye. Transcendence is, expectedly, a very pretty movie. But he and his actors fail to coax much else out of the flimsy story. Although it’s disappointing that more can’t be said, it’s tough to make sense of a film that doesn’t fully understand itself.

That, of course, answers the first question. “Why?” It doesn’t even matter. As for what conclusion the film reaches with its post-technological society, see the film to find out. Or don’t. You might not even notice the difference.

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