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Film Review

Artificial intelligence by degree



3 stars

Rated PG-13

119 minutes


CNA - Stop HIV Iowa (Oct)

Starring: Johnny Depp, Rebecca Hall, Morgan Freeman

In spite of its many and assorted plot-holes, “Transcendence” is a captivating sci-fi movie thanks to strong performances from a stable of reliable actors and a romantic hook at the heart of its high-concept trappings. The visually stunning movie is the work of cinematographer-turned-director Wally Pfister, whose estimable efforts on big spectacle action movies such as Christopher Nolan’s “The Dark Knight” and “Inception” established his credentials. 

Artificial intelligence is the name of the game. Will Caster (Johnny Depp) is an unrivaled genius in the science of creating thinking-computers. He’s working on creating a complex computer system that possesses “sentience and collective intelligence.” Will dreams of uploading a machine with “a full range of human emotion” and an “analytical power greater than the collected intelligence of every person born in the history of the world.” Yummy.

Will’s romantically loyal wife, and A.I. research partner, Evelyn (Rebecca Hall), is even more ambitious than her husband regarding the controversial idea of putting God in the machine. Doesn’t man always play God? Their co-researcher Max (Paul Bettany) has ethical doubts, but goes along for the ride, but only to a point. Max has smallish ambitions for the project. He wants to cure cancer and save lives. Yawn.

An assasination attempt from a Luddite activist/terrorist group known as “RIFT” (Revolutionary Independence From Technology), at a conference where Will is the keynote speaker, puts him at death’s doorstep. The suicidal assassin goes so far as to spike his bullets with polonium, the same radioactive element used to kill KGB agent Alexander Litvinenko and Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat. Spoiler alert: The only way to “save” Will is to upload his brain to a mammoth computer system ostensibly capable of controlling, well, everything on the planet and beyond.

Voilà, Will’s “transcendence” occurs. The all-seeing and all-knowing machine-man inhabits a universe of nanotechnology-assisted existence that breeds exponentially though the Earth’s molecules. Air and dust particles belong to Will. The Will-machine has the ability to restore sight to the blind and heal the critically injured. Amass enormous wealth overnight — check. End all war — probably. Cure global warming — possibly. What could go wrong?

At Will’s behest, Evelyn sets up shop for the mammoth computer in a remote and impoverished California town. She hires Martin (Clifton Collins Jr.), a local contractor, to manage the building of a massive solar-power farm to run the mega-computer system kept five stories underground.

Sadly, the story runs aground in every direction it turns. Cillian Murphy has the thankless role of Federal Agent Buchanan in charge of destroying Will’s fast-evolving machine that would — based on the information provided — already be able to defeat any army of any size before they lifted. The skeleton crew military troop that Buchanan assembles to bring down the machine is laughable for its tiny scale.

“Transcendence” nonetheless keeps you intrigued for its misleading plotline that wins the audience over to the machine’s side before reneging on the gambit. It provokes the audience to hypothesize on things such as the potential power of the NSA to transmogrify into an A.I. machine capable of untold deeds. Here is one of the first sci-fi movies in a long time to get out in front of where modern technology already stands. It sets the stage for other forward-thinking films to come. Artificial intelligence is imminent. The question is, who or what ends will it serve? CV

Cole Smithey — The Smartest Film Critic in the World — has covered every aspect of world cinema since 1997. His reviews and video essays are archived online at

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