On the surface, techno thrillers seem like a slam dunk: As technology evolves, so do the potential plot devices for effects-heavy films that pit man against the very stuff designed to benefit humanity.
The trouble is, the shelf life of a techno thriller shrinks as technology advances. The long list of movies that were once considered "cutting-edge"—Maximum Overdrive, The Net, Antitrust, Hackers, Eagle Eye, Swordfish—should serve as a warning to directors planning a film that includes more than one scene of actors frantically typing in a dark room lit only by a computer screen while talking about algorithms and "the Web."
It's unlikely Transcendence will be as horribly dated as its nearest counterpart, the 1992 oddity The Lawnmower Man, with which it shares the theme of a goodhearted man transforming into a digital god. Unlike that horrible riff on Flowers for Algernon, Transcendence addresses a compelling question about a technologically dependent society: What are the benefits and costs of computers that behave with the intelligence (and potential malevolence) of a super-evolved human mind?
The cautionary tale centers on Drs. Will and Evelyn Caster (Johnny Depp and Rebecca Hall), whose lives are torn apart when Will is mortally wounded by terrorists attempting to halt his revolutionary artificial-intelligence program. Distraught, Evelyn and a skeptical colleague (Paul Bettany) manage to record Will's brain patterns and incorporate them into the supercomputer's operating system, effectively resurrecting Will's ideas and personality. But wait…is it Will? (Cue explosive "bwwwaum" sound effect.)
Transcendence isn't nearly as corny as it sounds, and the plot transforms into something unexpected as terrorists, the military and other organizations grow wary of "Will's" plan to connect human minds. Credit director Wally Pfister—Christopher Nolan's go-to cinematographer, making his directorial debut after giving Inception, Memento and the Batman trilogy their aesthetic—for making things look gorgeous, feel creepy and move relatively briskly. Depp gives an unusually subdued performance as something of an advanced cousin of HAL 9000, while Hall anchors the film with much-needed heart as she struggles to differentiate between the man she loves and the monster she's made in his image.
But in moving between the smaller story of tragic lovers and a greater fable about the dangers of playing God, Pfister's film jackknifes jarringly, with characters inexplicably switching allegiances and fundamentally flipping their ideals halfway through. Such muddy characterization means that even if the film's technology never feels as outdated as a flip phone, it's still unlikely to endure.
Critic's Grade: C+
SEE IT: Transcendence is rated PG-13. It opens Friday at Cedar Hills, Eastport, Clackamas, Oak Grove, Bridgeport, Division, Lloyd Center, Movies on TV, Pioneer Place, Hilltop, Sherwood, Tigard.