Jonny Depp’s mathematician (Will Caster) is a leading light in artificial intelligence. Rebecca Hall is his partner and Paul Bettany is his friend. Caster is shot by a Luddite afraid of the hubristic implications of his research and his group sabotage decades of it. Caster dies but his consciousness is updated to a mainframe in the desert. Hall is his faithful helper but Bettany’s doubts lead him to being recruited by the Luddites and then by the government fearful of the threat Caster’s intelligence poses. Is Hall won over to Bettany’s cause, what happens to Caster?
At first I dismissed this as solemn bog standard sci-fi which, like the film I Robot, tends to side-step the more complicated issues concerning what it is to be human vis a vis artificial intelligence. Depp’s disembodied face in the computer almost had me giggling, as it made me want for his Jack Sparrow routine in Pirates of the Caribbean. It doesn’t help that Hall and Bettany are lumbered with such corny roles: Hall being superstitiously reverential to any scientific project (no matter how Faustian), and Bettany the tortured voice of conscience (a role appropriated by a British actor allowed to be a good guy). The film itself can’t resist the Humanities’ default mode, which insists if you can’t beat science you might as well worship it. Will Depp undergo a spiritual change when endowed with God-like power? The human element in this sort of sci-fi consists of the emotional confessional directed at due humility. In spite of these familiar burdens, the film is not as bad as its hostile critical reception would tell you. After all it tackles the same subject as Her in which Scarlett Johannsen plays a disembodied intelligence in a mobile phone, yet I heard no disbelieving laughter there. Transcendence steers between scientific hubris and the redemptive power of love with a fair degree of aplomb. Its lack of reliance on clunkingly silly special effects shouldn’t necessarily be held in its favour, but its few effects are all the more effective. Morgan Freeman plays concerned scientist friend with his usual statesmanlike gravitas. Given its potential for absurdity, Transcendence manages to be thoughtful, and occasionally well argued enough to be worth a careful viewing.