xXx: Return of Xander Cage
The last forty minutes of the movie do come together in a pretty diverting way.
In Hollywood, the phrase "science fiction film" doesn't usually mean what it should. Most films sold with that designation aren't true science fiction, because they don't deal in ideas in a sustained, conscientious way; they don't extrapolate where we are and where we might be headed, and what it might mean for the human race intellectually, physically and emotionally. More often what you get are action or horror or superhero movies with a faint science fiction flavor—films that occasionally remind themselves to genuflect toward big themes when they aren't just having the characters run and jump and dodge explosions or be surprised by a monster lunging at them from the dark. "Transcendence," about a dying computer genius (Johnny Depp) who uploads himself in computerized form and achieves a problematic digital afterlife, is real science fiction. It explores its ideas with sincerity, curiosity and terrifying beauty (its director is Wally Pfister, longtime cinematographer for Christopher Nolan). This makes its failures all the more depressing. A bad film is just a bad film. A well-intentioned film that reaches for greatness and keeps falling on its face is some kind of minor tragedy.
How much do you want to know about the plot? Since a big part of the film's fascination lies in its unexpected storytelling rhythms, I'll try to restrict myself to elements already divulged in the trailer, even though I resented where the story ended up. Suffice to say that when the tale begins, Depp's character, a Steven Jobs-ian technology guru named Will Caster, has been at the vanguard of artificial intelligence research for some time. He and his wife Evelyn (Rebecca Hall of "Iron Man 3") have been trying to create a sentient machine with a personality, perhaps a digital facsimile of a soul, even going so far as to hook a prototype version up to a dying monkey and upload the contents of its brain. Next step: do it with a human. A terrorist organization headed by Kate Mara's Bree engineers a series of strikes against research labs to set the AI research back. They think that creating an omnipotent computer with a human personality is a bad idea. Imagine!
Caster is wounded in the 9/11 style, multi-pronged attack, taking a radiation-laced bullet and dying a few weeks later. And it's at this point—maybe a quarter of the way through the story—that "Trancendence" becomes intriguing. What we've got here isn't just a "Frankenstein"-like parable of scientific hubris run amok, but also the story of a grieving spouse who's reluctant to let go of her mate and tries to prolong his life artificially. The film's script, credited to Jack Paglen, takes its sweet time confirming whether the being uploaded into the neural network Will Caster or merely a digital copy, and if a copy, what sort.
Will, after all, did not upload himself, and as we all know, when a physical object is destroyed and then reassembled in some other form, it might retain the essence of the original thing, but it is not the same—and its shape and function might be altered, even tainted, by the expectations and agendas of whoever did the reconstructing, as well as by the means of reassembly and the materials used. You may be reminded of the end of Steven Spielberg and Stanley Kubrick's "A.I.", which distinguishes between an actual person and an idealized image of that person. You might also recall W.W. Jacob's short story "The Monkey's Paw."