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. Trouble is, a film’s shelf life shrinks as technology advances. The long list of movies that were once considered “cutting-edge”—Maximum Overdrive
, The Net
, Eagle Eye
—should serve as a warning to directors. Transcendence
, at the very least, addresses a compelling question: 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 colleague manage to record Will’s brain patterns and incorporate them into the supercomputer’s operating system, effectively resurrecting him. But wait…is it
Will? Credit director Wally Pfister—Christopher Nolan’s go-to cinematographer, making his directorial debut after giving Inception
and the Batman
trilogy their aesthetic—for making things look gorgeous, feel creepy and move relatively briskly. But things also jackknife 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 Such muddy characterization means that even if the film’s technology never feels as outdated as a flip phone, it’s still unlikely to endure.