'Transcendence': Can't Get Over Itself

By Michael S. GoldbergeriBerkshires Film Critic
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Popcorn Column
by Michael S. Goldberger  

Warner Bros.
Johnny Depp goes all binary as he transcends to Deep-Blue levels.

Remember that really smart kid in high school who got double 8s on his SATs?

He was trying to end whatever war we were fighting at the time while also lobbying to save the environment, long before it was hip. Well, he grew up to be Will Caster, the genius protagonist played by Johnny Depp in first time director Wally Pfister's "Transcendence." If you're of a mind to see it, bone up on your organic chemistry and advanced computer algorithmic theory. Yeah, that kind of smart.

You have to give Depp credit. Smitten by the edgy stuff ever since his knack for it was evidenced in "Edward Scissorhands" (1990), his filmography is abundant with fringe appeal product. In most cases, the experimental dalliance they represent wouldn't have been possible were it not for his bona fide heartthrob status and a veritable pirates treasure courtesy of his Caribbean swashbuckling success. Whereas few artists can command this luxury without tarnishing their image, it respectfully affirms his.

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So here we have another labor of conscience. And, unfortunately, it comes as no surprise that while Pfister's highly imaginative, provocative and philosophically important meditation on our technological future is rife with interesting presentiments, when they run out, so does the film's appeal. Still, until this happens at around the three-quarter mark, the premise building is novel, intriguing, and apt exercise for the gray matter.

The director constructs carefully to that point, making sure even ordinary, science-challenged film critics can follow, or at least think they are following, the high-tech ingenuity being bandied about by characters who are arguably the three smartest scientists in the world.

You probably have to have a Ph.D. in something or other simply to understand what exactly their fields of expertise are. So, I'm just taking their word that they're on the cutting edge of what is known to man. And now, just shortly after we make their acquaintance, a tragedy perpetrated on Dr. Caster forces a quantum leap forward into territory even they might not comprehend.

Alas, whether contemplating the wheel or computer application of the most profound consequences, necessity is again the mother of invention. And, just as the first use of fire proved, technology is always both wonderful and terrible.

Here, we're dealing with the type of thing that will surely send a shudder through the ideologically conservative. If you think cloning threatens our biological well-being as we know it, wait until you get a load of this deal. I don't want to give it away. But earlier we get an inkling into what Dr. Evelyn Caster, Will's loving and just about as smart wife, is planning when hubby gives a fundraising speech on artificial intelligence at her behest.

A detractor in the audience stands and contends, "So, you want to create a god?"

"Isn't that what man has always done?" retorts Will.

No matter. Evelyn, nicely portrayed by Rebecca Hall, is desperate to keep her lover, colleague and life partner alive  — so to speak — and she just might have the appropriate computer app, thus far only tested with monkeys.

Fast forward and in a previously half-deserted ghost town in the West, an oasis full of scientific wonder flowers up from the dust. Things are happening here, and the FBI has become aware of it. Call it Silicon Valley gone rogue and the sky's the limit. Miracles are performed. Pilgrims attend. A blind man can see.

It's wonderfully heady. Pick your metaphor, simile and symbolic meaning to be discussed afterward around the coffee table with the Grossmans. Bring out that great streusel cake you bought. Munching on it, someone is bound to opine, "Absolute power corrupts absolutely," surely inspiring another to add, "Icarus flew too close to the sun."

But, "Tsk, tsk," you'll ultimately bemoan. Screenwriter Jack Paglen brings the script to where we're convinced the possibilities are infinite, but doesn't know where to go after that. Who would? So he muddies his genius by resorting to a typical action ploy. It's the anti-machinery Luddites, the FBI and the electronic legacy of Will Caster in a billion kilowatt revolution/counterrevolution that makes the Red Army-White Army conflict in post-Tsarist Russia look simplistic.

The special effects used to purvey the marvels Will and Co. have wrought are kaleidoscopically artistic ... a treat for the imagination. But once the gilt wears off the gingerbread, expect the typical fireworks.

In modern Filmdom, the great and horrifying possibilities of artificial intelligence were superbly anthropomorphized via the character of HAL in Stanley Kubrick's prophetic watershed, "2001: A Space Odyssey" (1968). More recently, a sophisticated genre update was created in the so-called personage of Spike Jonze's "Her" (2013). And now, although it runs out of the creative disk space needed to glimpse over the next theoretical rainbow, "Transcendence" adds a "Him" to the mix.

"Transcendence," rated PG-13, is a Warner Bros. release directed by Wally Pfister and stars Johnny Depp, Rebecca Hall and Paul Bettany. Running time: 119 minutes.

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