Transcendence is a '50s sci-fi movie updated to address our misgivings about the future toward which science now seems to be leading us. In place of the irradiated insects and atom-brained creatures of old, the menace here is provided by artificial intelligence, a subject of deep existential creepiness. First-time screenwriter Jack Paglen duly ticks off the moral concerns, and first-time director Wally Pfister (Christopher Nolan's go-to cinematographer) never allows the action to swamp the story's philosophical implications.
The picture doesn't stake out any new genre territory, and it might have benefited from some vintage b-movie flamboyance (a teeth-gnashing villain bent on world domination would have brought otherwise-absent fun to the proceedings). But it has an unusually warm emotional core—it's really a love story at heart. And it's a smart change of pace for its star, Johnny Depp, who has wasted much time in recent years on one-note comic portrayals in films like Dark Shadows, The Rum Diary, The Tourist, and of course the wretched Lone Ranger. Here, playing a grandly romantic character in a tragic plight, he gives a performance that's appealingly un-strained.
Depp's Dr. Will Caster is a top AI researcher, based in California, who believes his work can benefit humanity by providing cures for cancer and other afflictions. His wife and partner Evelyn (Rebecca Hall) additionally believes that AI can "help heal the planet." (We're in Berkeley here.) Their friend Max (Paul Bettany), a fellow researcher, shares these views, but has serious reservations about the Singularity—the point at which artificial intelligence will surpass its human creators. Will calls this "the Transcendence," and he's kind of excited about it. Also shuffling around on the perimeter of the plot is Will's professional mentor Joseph Tagger—a character apparently reflecting the filmmakers' belief that any movie is improved by the presence of Morgan Freeman, in whatever capacity.
Will is targeted by an anti-science terrorist group (battle cry: "Evolution without Technology") led by a grim blonde named Bree (Kate Mara). They dispatch a young zealot from among their number to assassinate Will. He takes a while to die, though, and in the interim Evelyn determines to reduce his brain to digits and upload it into a computer. Max's reservations grow even more serious.
Tantalizing questions naturally arise. What might happen if a person's entire consciousness were set loose on the Internet's endless sea of data? A lot, as you might imagine. (It's too bad that eavesdropping on the NSA is not a possibility the movie pursues.) After some stock-market cruising, the cybernetic Will guides Evelyn in building a huge underground research facility out in the desert—a place for her computer-generated husband to continue his planning for world betterment. His intentions apparently remain noble, but the means he employs to achieve them grow increasingly ominous, not least because of the small army of spooky cyber-minions he assembles to assist him.
There's no point in questioning the plausibility of a movie like this—do you quibble with SkyNet, or do you just go with it? Still, the picture's unhurried pace encourages nitpicking. How did Evelyn manage to build that big desert complex without the government getting wind of it? And how likely would it be, after the FBI arrives on the scene, that the head agent (Cillian Murphy), cowed by Will's omniscience, would decide to just join forces with the terrorists? Then there's the night Evelyn returns home to find that Will—now solely a presence on a monitor—has lit candles and poured wine for an improbable snuggly evening. Awfully handy for a virtual guy.
Director Pfister devises a few memorable scenes (there's a bout of robot surgery that's especially enlivening). But Depp and Hall center the movie with their sweet chemistry, persuasively conveying a romantic devotion that chafes against mortal boundaries. The idea of a love that can survive beyond death is as old as storytelling itself, but here it's given a hopeful modern spin—the possibility that lovers actually could live on in some glorious digital hereafter. It's a nice thought. But what would a teeth-gnashing villain bent on world domination make of it? We miss him.