Transcendence **1/2 (out of five)

This really should be Rebecca Hall.
This really should be Rebecca Hall.

The idea is a terrific one for these times: once we build a really fine AI (artificial intelligence), isn’t it likely that it will exponentially outgrow our intelligence, or at least reasoning abilities, far quicker than we imagined, and when it does, won’t it essentially be our god?

Unfortunately, this excellent set-up is squandered in a miasma of truly, frustratingly obtuse plot holes and ludicrous gaps in logic in Wally Pfister’s debut feature Transcendence, which features Rebecca Hall, Paul Bettany, and Johnny Depp on a screen (for most of the film at least, or for most of his screen time at least; his screen time, and screen screen time, is limited, and the poster for the film, being just his face, is a joke).Depp plays a Very Smart Tech Guy who is developing such an AI; when an incident early in the film lays him low, he goes virtual, merging his human data – memories, thought patterns, speech idiosyncrasies, visage – with The Machine. Things happen – or, often and disappointingly, don’t.

The new crop of science fiction, placing itself just alongside the now, and including such recent excellent films as Upstream Color, Her and Looper, is very exciting. Why imagine a future when our present is so exhilarating in terms of science and technology? When every day brings a potential new wonder available for less than a couple hundred bucks, where’s the thrill of laser beams and spacecraft? Science fiction is becoming science fact faster than most films’ production periods, and plots dealing with AI are definitely in a race against inevitable achievement. But when it comes, how soon will it enslave us?

Bettany and Hall - the real stars of the film. Hall is the lead.
Bettany and Hall – the real stars of the film. Hall is the lead.

That thought will bring a swathe of movies as that (very close) day draws closer still, and Transcendence will be considered in the cool and present past as being one of the early birds that missed the point of the worm (whereas Her probably got a lot right). After a cool, subdued, intellectually stimulating first act, the film offers an idea so impossible to digest, a concept that so obviously should have been poisoned at the script stage, that it beggars belief (literally) – and then bases the rest of the film around it. It doesn’t recover.

It’s a shame, because Rebecca Hall proves finally that she’s ready for full movie-star treatment. She’s excellent, and does her best to anchor a film that desperately needs one. But even she can’t justify a plot contrivance so absurd it’s an insult to a sci-fi audience. It’s one thing to ask us to believe in witches when you’ve got a tornado, a girl, a dog and a yellow brick road. But when you’re dealing with Wired magazine, the world of TED talks and common knowledge of real-world tech, as this film is in its careful set-up, then to suddenly ask us to believe in what this movie asks us to believe, is to lose us. In this case, it’s all the script’s fault.

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