"WITHIN THIRTY YEARS," wrote computer scientist, mathematics professor, and science fiction author Vernor Vinge, "we will have the technological means to create superhuman intelligence. Shortly after, the human era will be ended."
Vinge wrote those words in 1993, and while the human era isn't over quite yet, the idea of the singularity—the point when artificial intelligence will surpass our own—persists. By its very nature, the singularity is unknowable and unpredictable, promising and terrifying: Vinge suggests it will bring about "change comparable to the rise of human life on Earth," while also noting it's unavoidable—"an inevitable consequence of the humans' natural competitiveness and the possibilities inherent in technology."
Transcendence tries to be about those possibilities. But it's mostly about Johnny Depp's disembodied head.
Played by Depp and boasting a name about as subtle as "Ominous X. Foreshadowing," scientist Will Caster bestows the coming singularity with an almost theological importance. "Some call it the singularity," he preaches at a TED Talk-like event. "I call it... transcendence." Right on cue, an anti-technology terrorist group shows up to totally ruin Will's speech, with one of the neo-Luddites screaming, "YOU'RE ALL SLAVES!" (To what, exactly? iPhones? Facebook? TED Talks?) Then the anti-technology terrorist shoots Will with a radiation-laced bullet, which actually seems like a pretty high-tech way to murder somebody.
Will has only a month left to live—a month that his wife Evelyn (Rebecca Hall), and his colleague Max (Paul Bettany) spend uploading his consciousness into a "self-aware network." It's super easy! As soon as Will's body dies, his head pops up on the computer monitor, ready to either play Solitaire or TAKE OVER THE WORLD.
The singularity has occurred—and it looks a lot like Max Headroom. But even as the superhuman intelligence that used to be Will starts to make miraculous advances, it also starts to make increasingly worrisome demands. Inexplicably, the slow-witted Evelyn caters to her former husband's every creepy request; meanwhile, FBI Agent Buchanan (Cillian Murphy) works with Will's former pal Joseph (Morgan Freeman) to investigate, and Max is abducted by those obnoxious terrorists (their leader is played by House of Cards' Kate Mara, who manages to be as unconvincing as a terrorist as she was an investigative reporter).
That's a lot of names I just threw at you! Sorry, but that's Transcendence, a movie that crams too many characters, too many big ideas, and too much plot into two hours. First-time writer Jack Paglen and first-time director Wally Pfister can't handle it: In a futile effort to keep things moving at a fast pace, every character in Transcendence makes repeated, baffling decisions, usually while spouting technobabble, until everything just kind of... stops making sense.
Devolving into goofy, self-important gibberish is bad news for any film, but with Transcendence, that decline is even worse, given that a slew of other stories—like Mass Effect, or Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles, or Vernor Vinge's novels, or Her—have wrestled with these concepts with far more nuance and smarts. Still, fair is fair: While there might be plenty of other, better ways to think about the kind-of-awesome, kind-of-terrifying singularity, if you're looking for a movie about Johnny Depp's disembodied head, Transcendence fucking nails it.