Think of the sci-fi thriller Transcendence—the first feature film directed by Christopher Nolan’s longtime cinematographer, Wally Pfister—as a companion piece to Spike Jonze’s moody artificial-intelligence romance Her. Both films take place in not-too-distant futures—one apocalyptic, the other deceptively rosy—in which the line between technology and human consciousness has grown vanishingly thin. In both, a human protagonist falls in love (or, in Transcendence’s case, remains in love) with a digital entity whose ontological status is never quite clear: Is a person without a living body, whose memories, thoughts and feelings are encoded as data in a machine, still a person? And in both movies, the consequences of this attempt to love across the human-machine barrier are unforeseeable, far-reaching, and potentially destructive to the civilized world (or at least Joaquin Phoenix’s heart).
Transcendence is nowhere near as elegant, witty, or insightful as Her. Pfister and the screenwriter, Jack Paglen, grapple ponderously, sometimes oafishly, with the ethical and philosophical issues at stake in the film’s premise. But they grapple with them, and that earnest investment in the speculative part of “speculative science fiction” is what makes Transcendence worth watching, at least until it falls apart in a last-act barrage of nonsensical plot developments and soothing TED-talk wisdom. Transcendence is fairly ridiculous, but some may prefer its grand, loopy ambition to the small-minded sameness of so many futuristic thrillers.
Johnny Depp plays a reclusive tech visionary with the vaguely foreshadowy name of Will Caster who, along with his brilliant and beloved wife Evelyn (the willowy Rebecca Hall, late of Vicki Cristina Barcelona, more recently of Iron Man 3), has been developing a fast-evolving supercomputer nicknamed PINN—a roomful of powerful servers that’s close to achieving something like a consciousness.* Asked if “she” can say something to prove she’s self-aware, the machine cheekily responds to her human questioner, “Can you?”
The only other two people alive smart enough to understand this technology, apparently, are the Casters’ neurobiologist friend Max (Paul Bettany) and their former colleague Tagger (Morgan Freeman), an A.I. guru at a computer-science lab. While the Casters are giving a talk about the exciting real-world implications of their advancing discoveries, Tagger’s lab is destroyed and his entire team killed in an attack by a shady “Neo-Luddite” terrorist group headed by a bleached-blond Kate Mara, who we already know from House of Cards to be an untrustworthy bit of baggage.
In a second, nearly simultaneous terrorist attack Will is grazed by a bullet that’s been laced with radiation and is given only weeks to live. Evelyn, working to save him by any means necessary, makes a frantic last-ditch proposal to Max: Before Will dies, they’ll encode his brain function—memory, emotion, language, everything—and upload it into the PINN servers, so his consciousness can live on after his physical body is dead.
Sounds like a plan, right? Except that, as Victor Frankenstein can attest, hubristically usurping God’s place as the creator of life has a way of not working out like you thought it would. Only minutes after coming online following his bodily death, Will—at first seen only as a line of text on a computer screen—is asking for access to information about the world’s banking system and educational databases. Those red flags go unnoticed by the ecstatic Evelyn, whose joy at being reunited with her beloved is such that she banishes her collaborator, Max, when he expresses skepticism about the motives of whoever or whatever is passing itself off as Will.
In the second half of the movie, Evelyn (who’s now among the world’s wealthiest women, thanks to Will’s posthumous financial chicanery) moves to a desert town called Brightwood to build a vast, cultlike scientific compound that will house her late husband’s ever-expanding and ever-more-ambitious consciousness. It’s in these scenes that Pfister gets to show off the eye for the stark compositions and large-scale effects he demonstrated in Nolan movies like Inception and The Dark Knight. There are no gracefully somersaulting tractor-trailers or Parisian streets folding in on themselves, but there are Kubrick-esque all-white corridors with impossibly distant vanishing points and clouds of sentient nanobot-dust that spiral up from the ground in glittering green-gray tornados.
A lot of it is spectacular to look at, and to the movie’s credit the romance that drives the story forward is neither vapid nor (the ending excepted) sentimental. Sci-fi elements aside, Transcendence tells the tale of a compulsively enabling woman trapped in a really bad relationship with a much more powerful man—a situation that can make for affecting drama even if the guy in question isn’t evolving at lightning speed into an omniscient digital consciousness. That ending, though (and by ending I mean about the last 20 minutes)—oy. Without giving anything away, I can say it takes us closer to Nicholas Sparks territory than the director probably intended, and squanders a lot of viewer goodwill along the way.
Transcendence poses more ominously a question that Her raised in passing, and that I hope future technologically themed sci-fi will pick up on: If your hyper-connected virtual lover can observe you at every minute—as you sleep, as you drive, as you dine alone in a room with their disembodied image hovering on a screen—what’s the difference between devotion and surveillance? There was a hint of psychological horror in the creepy late scenes between the disenchanted Evelyn and the increasingly controlling Will that made me think Wally Pfister may have a really good science-fiction thriller in him. This isn’t that movie—it’s more of an imperfect facsimile, which as Transcendence shows can take you pretty far but not the whole way.
Correction, April 17, 2014: This article misstated that Rebecca Hall will star in Spider-Man 3. (Return.)