Wednesday, 3 September, 2014

Published April 18, 2014
Highfaluting stuff
Transcendence rushes in where no talented science fiction writer dare tread, writes Geoffrey Eu
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Even a slew of A-listers such as Johnny Depp and Morgan Freeman (above) fail to lift the film Transcendence, directed by Wally Pfister, from the murky depths of its narrative

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MOVIES that purport to take a serious peek into the future are unburdened by real-world constraints - like having to make sense - but even when logic is suspended there is a responsibility to entertain. Transcendence, a sci-fi thriller that takes the high road in the debate on humanity versus technology, fails miserably on both counts.

The film's vision of the apocalypse, brought about by the collapse of the Internet, is triggered when a brilliant scientist's attempt to heal the world and build a better future goes horribly wrong. The idea of a super-intelligent machine capable of human-like emotions was tackled most recently - and to much better effect - in Spike Jonze's Her while Transcendence, directed by Wally Pfister and written by Jack Paglen, is simply unable to stir much in the way of an emotional response.

This is one of those movies with Big Ideas but its ambitions are hampered by poor pacing, an untidy script and a narrative thread that is far too flimsy at best - there are more holes in it than Swiss cheese. A slew of A-listers do their best to energise proceedings but when Johnny Depp spends most of his screen time in two-dimensional form (speaking in monotone and looking out of a computer screen), even he is apt to lose something on the charisma front.

Artificial Intelligence expert Will Caster (Depp) has a beautiful mind and a noble mission in life: he wants to create a computer brain that is self-aware and self-sustaining. Together with wife Evelyn (Rebecca Hall) and colleague Max Waters (Paul Bettany), he is close to achieving his dream. But anti-technology radicals led by Bree (Kate Mara) view Caster's attempt at "transcendence" as a threat to humanity, so they shoot him with a poison-tipped bullet.

Will is a dead man walking but he can still be saved - in a way - by having his grey matter uploaded into the computer that he helped to create. Evelyn is convinced that her beloved husband has returned from the dead, but Max is not so sure. He has long been conflicted by the struggle between technology's promise and its perils. With her husband at her side (or on her computer screen) and the knowledge of the world at her fingertips, Evelyn builds a high-tech underground lab in the desert. Max, however, is kidnapped by Bree and her associates and spends years in a cave.

Meanwhile, fellow scientist Joseph Tagger (Morgan Freeman) and an FBI agent (Cillian Murphy) are also keeping tabs on Evelyn's advanced research and the danger to humanity that it represents. Together with Max - who has teamed with the terrorists - they employ a series of low-tech tactics to rain on Evelyn's and Will's (or his computer-rendered version, anyway) parade.

Transcendence may have been able to survive intact up to this point but when an additional element - to do with tissue regeneration and synthetic stem cells - is introduced to the storyline, there really is no way back. Viewers who are governed by logic may also wish to ask themselves why - when the survival of the planet is at stake - only a handful of good guys are on the case, but that would only be risking major disappointment.

Rating: C