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Movie review: 'Transcendence' a familiar tale of machines with human faults -- and heart

Gene Triplett Published: April 18, 2014
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Morgan Freeman, Cillian Murphy, Johnny Depp, Rebecca Hall.
Morgan Freeman, Cillian Murphy, Johnny Depp, Rebecca Hall.

“Transcendence” whisks its audience into the not-too-distant future to explore
the good, the bad and the potentially ugly results that can stem from taking
technology a bridge too far.
In this case, man has figured out how to upload a human brain into a super
computer dubbed PINN (Physically Independent Neural Network), creating a
sentient machine that combines the collective intelligence of everything ever
known with the full range of human emotions.
This science-fiction thriller from first-time director Wally Pfister
(Oscar-winning cinematographer of “Inception” and the “Dark Knight” movies)
takes a hypothetical road that’s been traveled in countless books, movies and
episodes of “Twilight Zone” and “The Outer Limits,” but poses some familiar
moral questions with more heart than most speculative yarns, thanks to an
engaging love story at its emotional center.
The story by first-time screenwriter Jack Paglen centers on Dr. Will Caster
(Johnny Depp), a famous researcher in the field of artificial intelligence who
provides the breakthrough that makes this uploading of the mind — called
singularity, or transcendence — possible.
But his highly controversial experiments make him No. 1 on the hit list of an
anti-technology extremist group called Revolutionary Independence From
Technology (RIFT), who’ll stop at nothing, including murder, to quell the
world’s ever-growing dependence on technology and what they perceive as its
negative effects on mankind. (Jeez, we know some of us hate computers, but these
guys are going a little overboard.)
When RIFT inflicts mortal physical injury on Will, their actions backfire on
them, because his loving wife Evelyn (Rebecca Hall) and his best friend Max
Waters (Paul Bettany), both fellow researchers, upload his mind into PINN in
order to keep him alive the only way they know how.
Now, all three of these good people share a burning desire to make the world a
better place through science, but Will is only human (or is he still?), and
knowledge is power, and power tends to corrupt. Human emotions can be positive
or horribly negative, and so it follows that a machine with emotions can be
benevolent or malevolent too, depending on which way the brain waves blow.
Will ego, power and passion spoil Will Caster? Will he use his omniscient power
for the greater good, or will he become an unstoppable mechanical god bent on
something unspeakably sinister and world-shattering? Is that really Will’s heart
and soul inside that machine?
Depp, whose virtual character plays from computer screens throughout most of the
film, turns in an admirably understated and effectively disturbing performance,
and Hall is a heartbreaker as the devoted wife forced to continue her
relationship with her husband beyond its physical form, too blinded by love to
make any objective decisions.
Bettany is also fine as Max, who grieves for the loss of his friend, but is
compelled by his unspoken love for Evelyn to help her keep Will “alive” against his
better judgment.
The idea of an extremist group out to derail scientific progress through deadly
violence is the one element that strains this story’s credibility a bit. But its
emotionally engaging futuristic vision of humankind on an unavoidable collision
course with technology makes for some thought-provoking entertainment.
– Gene Triplett

MOVIE REVIEW

‘TRANSCENDENCE’
PG-13

1:59

2 1/2 stars
Starring: Johnny Depp, Rebecca Hall, Paul Bettany, Cillian Murphy, Kate Mara,
Cole Hauser, Clifton Collins Jr., Morgan Freeman.
(Sci-fi action and violence, some bloody images, brief strong language and
sensuality)