Transcendence

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Like so much of modern technology, “Transcendence” starts out full of excitement and promise before proving to be just another expensive gadget of dubious usefulness. The directorial debut of cinematographer Wally Pfister (he’s Christopher Nolan’s favorite), this half-hearted examination of the conflict between humanity and technology stars Johnny Depp as Will Caster, a brilliant Berkeley scientist at death’s door who uploads his consciousness into the artificial intelligence device that he’s been developing with his heal-the-world do-gooder wife, Evelyn (Rebecca Hall), and their conscience-stricken colleague Max (Paul Bettany). Now a super-intelligent living computer with access to all the world’s knowledge, Will develops nanotechnology that can heal injuries and cure disease — BUT AT WHAT COST?

Despite the alluring premise of an omniscient A.I., the film gets bogged down by elements it doesn’t have time to explore (anti-tech terrorists; the FBI; nano-enhanced super-soldiers). Moreover, it lacks a strong lead: Depp is a digital entity devoid of personality; Hall is inconsistent and purely functional; and Bettany is sidelined for most of it. Jack Paglen’s disappointing screenplay barely scratches the surface of the fascinating moral and scientific questions it hints at, instead spinning its wheels with hypotheticals. Even more egregious, it wastes Morgan Freeman (he plays another scientist who kind of works with the FBI) and doesn’t use his one good Freeman-y line from the trailer: “This isn’t evolution, it’s an abomination!” I don’t care if it’s campy, more of that kind of straightforwardness would have improved the film considerably.

C (1 hr., 59 min.; PG-13, some moderate violence.)

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