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Cinema Signal: Not quite a green light but has elements of strong appeal for a limited audience. MOBILE version |
. "Transendence"

With a ladle of Stanley Kubrick's computerized menace, Hal, in "2001: A Space Odyssey," a tablespoon of Steven Spielberg's digital deviltry in "A.I. Artificial Intelligence" and, maybe, a tiny shot of "Star Trek's teleportation," cinematographer Wally Pfister makes his directorial debut on the margins of futuristic acceptability and today's hunger for crystal ball gazing. With a pretty elegant cast, I might add.

But, it's no joy ride.

It starts on the nice note of marital solidity, with Artificial Intelligence scientist Will Caster (Johnny Depp) and Computer scientist Evelyn Caster (Rebecca Hall, "Closed Circuit") willing to do anything for each other. Her pride in her spouse is clear when Will appears before his peers in the scientific community to reveal his project, "PINN" (Physically Independent Neural Network), the most advanced computer system dedicated to artificial intelligence yet known. The problems, however, are the eco-terrorists who see his machine as a threat to mankind, not a boon. And, they've got the extremists who'll do anything they can to deflate the accolades and stop geniuses like him.

So, long story short, one of them shoots him. Seems like a non-threatening wound, but he begins to suffer a slow death from the radiation element on the bullet. Shades of the KGB! (who delivered plutonium to an ex-agent in a drink, at least).

This leads the Casters to put one and one together to come up with the idea that before he dies, (and before the ecos destroy his computers, for some needed tension) Will's brain and neural system can be uploaded to PINN, where he would be able to continue his work, and keep him in Evelyn's constant presence. Only best friend neurologist Max Waters (Paul Bettany at his best, "Margin Call") foresees problems in this untested experiment, and he's dismissed. And, so, Will's memory, image storehouse, intelligence, and all, go digital, for posterity.

Having traded his genes for algorithms, Will copies the system code to the cloud in time to avert disaster and sets up barriers to anything or anybody who could pose a threat to the program, which is now his existence. In so doing, he (or it) creates a structure of power that grows in unforeseen ways -- foreboding ways -- which Evelyn, his protector, begins to understand.

Now, the concept begs some admiration but, drama-wise, it contains the seed of its own plot demise. I mean, who is there to root for? However amazing the transference of a human mind to a digital pseudo being -- an animated avatar, if you will -- the "apparent" Will can feign emotion but feel none. And, so, Evelyn goes on dedicated to Will's programatic will, basking in the screen glow of her almost dead husband vividly and constantly remaining in her company. It becomes a one-sided romance, at best, however, and she's destined to realize that Will's PINN presence has become a subtle control freak without a conscience.

Poof goes the great idea.

And, with it, much of a chance for the movie.

Whoever thought that the cinematographer of "The Dark Knight" series (2008, 2012) and "Inception" would deliver the highly visual nature of all this sci-fi artifice, were not disappointed. Pfister even does well with the pre-transendence marriage bond between his two leads, portraying a couple deeply in love. So, whatever it is about this film that might make it fail in the numbers game, is pre-ordained in the concept as scripted by debuting Jack Paglen.

The irony for Depp is the better he is in the role the more thankless it becomes. (Which isn't true for his Tonto in "The Lone Ranger.) Hall, the sentient being of the two, is the emotional heart of the film, although this is squandered by the length of time it takes for her to accept that the PINN version of hubby isn't the man she fell in love with and, in fact, she is the enabler of a menace.

Kate Mara in blond wig as the leader of the terrorist gang shows a hot-head feistiness along with her singular look, but her prominence in the film fades as the plot develops. Other marquee names in minor roles go to Cillian Murphy as Agent Buchanan, Cole Hauser as Colonel Stevens, Morgan Freeman as Joseph Tagger and Clifton Collins Jr. as Martin.

Challenging cinematography duties are by Jess Hall ("The Spectacular Now") which is accomplished and gives him his best credit to date. Composer Mychael Danna makes his presence known in no uncertain terms, at times driving the movie through heavy rhythmatic pulsation that is, at once, heavy-handed and captivating musically.

In the end, if I may be a little fussy about the concept and the claims of the title, it can be argued that the reduction of a human being to code doesn't amount to supremacy or perfection when it's dependent on one or more live followers who can and are willing to carry out its wishes. This AI character lacks the capacity to know when it crosses the boundaries of ethics and morality for even its most ardent supporter. But... good try.

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                                                                              ~~  Jules Brenner  

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