Smartphones, lightning-fast Internet, and nanotechnology connect Transcendence to the here and now. But in plenty of other respects, this humorless science-fiction cautionary tale feels like a relic from an earlier era, pulled out of a dusty old box of zip disks and 56k modems. Forget that the basic plot, about a dying researcher whose consciousness is uploaded into a computer, bears a certain resemblance to the 1992 techno-thriller The Lawnmower Man. There’s also something very turn-of-the-millennium about its dread. Fear of artificial intelligence, interconnectivity, and the vast accumulation of data hasn’t exactly died down, but Transcendence approaches those anxieties with the stop-the-presses urgency of a Y2K alarmist. The film rages, dully and impotently, against a future that has more or less already arrived.
Speaking of Y2K, a post-apocalyptic prologue offers the realization of that passé doomsday scenario: Shopkeepers scrawl prices in marker and prop their doors open with keyboards, while narrator Max Waters (Paul Bettany) speculates about the possibility of electricity in Boston. (As visions of a technology-free world go, it’s less Mad Max than that one episode of South Park.) Flashing back five years, Transcendence finds leading A.I. scientist Will Caster (Johnny Depp) shot down by an anti-technology extremist group; in true comic-book fashion, these unlikely terrorists lace the fired bullet with radiation, leaving their genius target on his deathbed. Wracked with grief, Will’s wife and research partner, Evelyn (Rebecca Hall), converts her hubby’s mind into ones and zeroes. He awakens as a digital demigod, his face a pixelated avatar, his voice an electronic sample, and his brain a mighty hard drive, sucking up global intel at an alarming rate. Meanwhile, fellow researcher Waters falls under the influence of the resistance—specifically Kate Mara’s ranting radical, who possesses all the indignation of a self-righteous grad student.
Transcendence powers forward with an almost mechanized efficiency, sacrificing such niceties as drama, comedy, and character development in the pursuit of its dystopian endgame. The supporting actors—Morgan Freeman as a colleague, Cillian Murphy as an FBI agent—aren’t so much playing people as mouthpieces, on hand to speculate about the dangers of combining a man’s lust for power with a machine’s processing power. Will, who’s like Dr. Manhattan by way of Max Headroom, eventually constructs a kind of high-tech corporate campus on the grounds of a Southwest desert town, possibly because situating it within a city would be more expensive for the filmmakers. Here, he makes great strides in the field of nanotechnology, harnessing Biblical swarms of microscopic computers to cure disease and regenerate cells, but also to transform civilians into T-1000-like soldier-slaves. How could nanotech afford a person superhuman speed and strength? The logic is as shaky as the philosophy, which hinges on a general distrust of technological progress.
Eventually, perhaps inevitably, Transcendence erupts into armed conflict, orchestrated by first-time director Wally Pfister with a general lack of panache. Pfister is probably best known as Christopher Nolan’s director of photography, and while he has his collaborator’s ultra-seriousness down pat, he lacks Nolan’s talent for weaving grand pop spectacle out of cultural anxieties. (One ironic demerit: The cinematography, by Hot Fuzz’s Jess Hall, is no match for what Pfister himself could have provided the project.) Truthfully, though, the movie’s problems run deeper than its execution of action. The tortured relationship between Will and Evelyn, the latter of whom desperately wants to believe that her beloved still exists in the code, is meant to be the heart of the picture. But try as she might, Hall can’t sell the romance—possibly because her co-lead, Skyping it in, seems no more alive before his conversion than after. Outdated outrage aside, Transcendence finally fails because there’s no ghost in its machine. For a film about the erosion of humanity by technology, it’s surprisingly lacking in… humanity.