The plot of TRANSCENDENCE hinges on Luddite terrorists that are tech-phobic enough to murder software engineers, but tech-savvy enough to lace their bullets with radioactive material.
That’s the first gut-punch to your suspension of disbelief, and it’s only ten minutes in. TRANSCENDENCE is just warming up.
Johnny Depp is renowned scientist Dr. Will Caster and he’s close to achieving his life’s work: creating a self-aware artificial intelligence, because we all know SKYNET went so famously well. On his way out of a public exposition-delivering appearance, Caster is ambushed and shot with a radioactive bullet by the aforementioned terrorists in a coordinated attack also involving computer bombs and a poisoned birthday cake (did Dr. Doom help these guys out or something?). Luckily, the resulting radiation poisoning gives a dying Dr. Caster just enough time to upload his consciousness onto his computer.
This new Cyber-Depp quickly escapes and infects the internet as a rapidly evolving, sentient computer virus with unknown goals. As the singularity incorporates every electronic device on earth, Caster’s former colleagues, the FBI, and even that terrorist group find themselves in an uneasy three-way alliance. Caster is clearly no longer human – but does he have any humanity left at all? And if not, can he even be stopped?
I wanted to love TRANSCENDENCE. Melding a human soul with software is heady, thought-provoking stuff, but the unfocused shotgun blast of a screenplay fails to cohere into much of anything. We’re left with a sprawling mess that introduces fascinating ideas and then immediately drops them to jaggedly rush into the next scene. The storytelling is as smooth as a dryer with a brick in it. It can’t even seem to decide on a genre – so we get a drama without enough character development and a thriller without enough danger.
Because the script is such a mess, the outlandish scifi concepts aren’t given the attention they need to work. At a breathless pace, TRANSCENDENCE introduces nanotechnology via raindrops, superhuman hybrids, and a climactic computer virus with baffling consequences. It’s just too much fi and not enough sci to ground everything. By the time the third act rolled around and Cyber-Depp started attacking everyone with magic CG tentacles, my mind had wandered back to the low-key narrative riddles of OCULUS, which was playing in the theater next door.
And that’s too bad, because TRANSCENDENCE also has some real strengths. The cinematography is starkly beautiful, the ideas are big, and the cast is terrific. If you adjust your expectations a few rungs, you can still salvage an okay time with this one. Some individual scenes work pretty well, and there’s no denying the coolness of the stuff on display.
But Michael Crichton could have written it way better.
And he’s dead.