There is a tradition of excellent cinematic explorations of artificial intelligence — from “Alphaville” to “2001” to “The Matrix.” However, “Transcendence” belongs to that subgenre of usually terrible films about the Internet.
Johnny Depp plays Will Caster, a computer scientist who is on the verge of a series of breakthroughs that would permit sentient brain functions to be uploaded into a computer, creating a human form of artificial intelligence. He’s a bit of a self-parody — purporting to be publicity shy, but posing for a Wired magazine cover that he repeatedly is called upon to autograph.
His work has drawn the attention of a neo-Luddite terrorist network who believe that true artificial intelligence will make human civilization obsolete or even subservient to computer overlords.
Will is shot at point-blank range in a coordinated terrorist attack. However, thanks to some shockingly poor marksmanship, Will is only grazed in the assault.
But it turns out that the shooter has hedged against this possibility with the use of a polonium-laced bullet, and a wasting radiation sickness soon follows. Will has a few months, therefore, to lay the groundwork necessary to upload his consciousness — with the help of his devoted wife Evelyn (Rebecca Hall) and his best friend and colleague Max (Paul Bettany).
Once Will is uploaded and online, he moves quickly to squeeze money out of the stock market to provide Evelyn with funds to build a remote, solar-powered cloud computing facility deep in the desert badlands of the American West.
He lords over his creation as a ubiquitous and unsleeping image, projected like Big Brother onto thousands of high-definition monitors.
There, freed from almost all restraint, Will’s intelligence expands to create computerized tools to take over and network human minds, repair bodies with nanotechnology, and even grow human tissue from scratch. Some mad scientists reanimate brains, others reformat them — it’s just a question of technology.
Word leaks out about the restorative powers of Will’s researches, and his underground lair becomes a kind of Lourdes for pilgrims seeking his healing touch. (The religious overtones are kind of tacked on, but unmistakable.)
At the same time, he also draws the attention of the authorities, including Joseph Tagger, a government scientist played by Morgan Freeman. Tagger takes charge of a surprisingly low-key effort to take down the looming global threat posed by Will’s computer incarnation.
At best, “Transcendence,” a deeply silly sci-fi thriller that probes the potential consequences of true artificial intelligence in a networked world, plays like an exercise in high camp, with the filmmakers in on the joke.
At one point, the computerized incarnation of the mind of a deceased scientist tries to empathize with his increasingly troubled wife by dryly observing that she seems to be secreting more serotonin than is usual.
During a chase scene, the super-fast sprinting of some biologically enhanced flunkies is overlaid with sound effects that sound pirated from the classic TV show “The Six Million Dollar Man.”
This is in keeping with the type of misunderstood half-hero that Mr. Depp has a knack for playing — in films like “Edward Scissorhands,” “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory,” and the more recent and somewhat underrated “Dark Shadows.”
Regrettably, instead of playing to Mr. Depp’s talents, “Transcendence” lurches toward the kind of muddled techno-thriller bilge that invariably infects other movies that try to visualize the inner workings of computer networks.