CONT-AI-NS SOME SPOILERS
It's really a pity this hasn't done a lot better at the international box-office, as then there'd be at least the possibility of more ambitious, more mature science fiction rather than the teen/YA sci-fi nonsense that might look good but makes no sense. Maybe seeing it on the same afternoon as the shiny but ridiculous Divergent made it look better by comparison, just as seeing it back-to-back with 2001: A Space Odyssey would have made it look unutterably terrible, but while this certainly isn't a great film and there is a lot wrong with it, it's nice to see something that's [a] aiming a little higher than usual and [b] at least partially succeeding.
The apocalypse of Transcendence isn't an alien invasion, a nuclear war or natural disasters: rather it's what happens when everything just gets switched off: computers, cellphones, Twitter. It all goes down because scientist Johnny Depp's ideas for artificial intelligence seem a little too close to creating a god: he's gunned down by Luddite terrorists. But devoted wife Rebecca Hall and idealistic colleague Paul Bettany manage to something something reverse the polarity of the dilithium crystals and upload his brain into the computer, and thence onto the internet....
But once up there, hovering on monitor screens like Holly from Red Dwarf, the new, supersmart Depp sets about repairing and restoring humanity and Earth thanks to his access to the entirety of online information (from social media through, presumably, to amateur pornography). Fixing the environment and healing the sick through nanotechnology but - crucially - taking over people's minds and bodies, robbing them of free will. Can this new deity of ours be stopped?
Despite being a gnat's short of two hours, it feels longer. And there's one curious moment when the Luddites announce "We must act now!" but then they apparently do nothing for several years. Plus, and this may be where the box-office disappontment originated, it's very low on popcorn spectacle as the end of civilisation as we know it pretty much happens off screen. No massive explosions or crumbling cityscapes: just the Blue Screen Of Death and the offswitch. But more important than CGI whizzbang, the film has ideas, and the imagination to see where those ideas might lead, even if it's to a decision between mankind following his destiny to an inevitable doom or a perfect but soulless future as a remote control drone of the Almighty Depp.
And of course it looks great, as directed by Wally Pfister (who started out as a cinematographer on glossy softcore Basic Instinct knockoffs like Animal Instincts and Night Rhythms back in the early 90s), and whose avowed preference for film over HD video is nicely mirrored in Transcendence's championing of clunky natural humanity over "perfect" digital simulations. Here's to more intelligent and more intellectual science fiction; it's a pity that mass audiences aren't willing to pay for it.