HAL has come a long way.
First, we had Scarlett Johansson as a human-like operating system. Now, Johnny Depp has been uploaded. If the singularity – when artificial intelligence surpasses human smarts – is indeed coming, at least it has decent taste in movie star avatars.
First-time director Wally Pfister’s “Transcendence” isn’t so much the “Him” to Spike Jonze’s “Her” as it’s a more dystopian vision of the meeting of human consciousness and computer intelligence. It turns out that when computers get sophisticated, worse things can happen than Joaquin Phoenix getting his feelings hurt.
But whereas “Her” was playful and personal about familiar futuristic concepts, “Transcendence” is clunky and lifeless. It’s like the movie version of a paranoid TED talk.
In the early scenes of “Transcendence,” Dr. Will Caster (a disappointingly sleepy Depp) is a TED-style master of the universe, speaking confidently in front of large video screens to eager listeners about neurology and artificial intelligence.
But there are also protesters to his potentially all-powerful invention: the Physically Independent Neural Network (PINN), an early artificial intelligence propelled by a room full of computers that Caster believes could, among other things, cure cancer.
An assassination attempt with a radiation-laced bullet leaves Caster with weeks to live. Desperate to keep his mind alive, his loyal, sycophantic wife and fellow researcher Evelyn (Rebecca Hall) uploads Caster’s brain to a PC with PINN hardware. Helping her is their good friend and colleague Max (Paul Bettany, serving as narrator).
But as anyone with an iPhone knows, software updates can be tragic. The transfer is finished just as Caster dies. Soon enough, the screen flickers to life, first with a few typed words and then seemingly Caster’s full personality, in voice and pixel form.
Alert to their plan, anti-tech activists (led by Kate Mara) are simultaneously descending. In the chaos, Max begins to realize they’ve created a high-speed Frankenstein – an epiphany lost on the mourning Evelyn, who flees after uploading Caster to the Internet. He immediately spreads across the Web (he calls Evelyn on her phone) and begins seeking more computing power.
It takes a long time for “Transcendence” to build to this moment, when perhaps it should have begun here in the first place. But it feels like a suddenly intriguing crossroads. Where will this terrifyingly digital Depp go?
If you answered: to a desert town to build an underground data center for development of radical tissue regeneration techniques, guarded by a creepy army of network-connected, superhuman zombies – then your algorithms are more advanced than mine.
Yet the urgency and intelligence of “Transcendence” isn’t artificial. It feels sincerely animated by the frightful questions it poses about computing power and interconnectedness.
Pfister, making his directorial debut after years as a cinematographer often teamed with director Christopher Nolan (a “Transcendence” producer), doesn’t exhibit a sure hand with dialogue or a feel for the rhythm of his narrative. Neither does the film have the distinctive form of his prior photography work, most notably “The Dark Knight.”
But, as in Nolan’s “Inception,” Pfister, working from a script by first-time screenwriter Jack Paglen, shows an instinct to drive the genre elements toward a more personal story. “Transcendence” ultimately hinges on the relationship of Caster and Evelyn.
The excellent Hall, looking a bit confused by what she’s gotten herself into, does her best to emotionally ground Pfister’s increasingly unfocused and heavy-handed story.
Just as in science, noble intentions can lead talented artistic minds astray, too.