transcendence movie poster

Dumb doesn’t even begin to describe this movie. But that doesn’t mean we won’t try.

The new Johnny Depp film, Transcendence, is a science-fiction film that doesn’t seem to like science very much. Or know that much about it. The story concerns a scientist whose brain is transferred into a computer artificial-intelligence program, granting him a frightening level of knowledge and power.

Johnny Depp as a god-like entity is a scary enough prospect, but there’s a whole lot of dumb going down on the way there. Here are five of the dumbest.

1. The anti-technology bad guys are blank slates

The film’s main conflict (at least at first) is between a team of scientists working to develop a computer with humanlike artificial intelligence and a terrorist group called R.I.F.T.: “Radical Independence From Technology.” R.I.F.T thinks that creating true A.I. will be a very bad thing, and because this is that kind of sci-fi movie they turn out to be mostly right. Left unsaid: What they’re actually worried about.

The film never bothers to give any of them a concrete rationale for what they’re doing other than a computer screencap declaring A.I. to be an “abomination”… which is sort of strange since A.) There are actually a lot of philosophical, economic and demographic arguments made against Singularity-like movements in the real word right now and B.) The film asks us to sympathize with R.I.F.T. (even as they’re murdering and kidnapping people) for the most part.

2. “Ray, when someone asks if you’re a god, you say…”

Are you watching a bad science-fiction movie and you want to be able to guess who the bad guy is early on? Just wait for someone to ask one of the scientist characters the “Playing God” question. If said scientist’s answer is anything other than an immediate “No!,” he’s the bad guy. Or he will be, really soon.

3. The movie takes place on Planet America

Transcendence is one of those movies where something utterly Earth-shaking is happening way out in public but less than a hundred people ever seem to notice.

In this case: A powerful supercomputer with artificial intelligence and the digitized “soul” of a famous researcher is using nanotechnology to control the weather, rewrite the environment and cure human volunteers of their lifelong chronic disabilities – after which they become nano-enhanced superhumans with wifi-enabled brains who use their newfound super strength to help their Computer God build a massive solar energy farm. “He” advertises these services (re: cure all disease, become Superman) virally on the internet… but somehow only seems to draw maybe two or three dozen people, total, and all seemingly from the surrounding area.

Meanwhile, the entire rest of the world does not seem to care that any of this is going on. You’d think other wealthy, powerful nations would show at least a passing interest in this big giant thing happening in the U.S., but nope! No one seems to care outside of R.I.F.T. and some FBI troops.

transcendence johnny depp

4. The movie doesn’t know how computers, the Internet, wifi or downloading speeds actually work

I’m usually the guy who says that things like this don’t matter if you’ve got a good story to tell, but there’s a limit. And also Transcendence doesn’t have a good story to tell.

Early on, Depp’s character (when still human) uses a net of copper mesh to turn his wife’s flower garden into a wifi dead-spot (her request.) Later, the R.I.F.T. gang uses a similar net to cut off his wireless access to one of his nanotech/human hybrids by stretching it across a tunnel – severing the connection. So… the wifi signal that was penetrating the roof of the tunnel vertically just fine before is now not because you’ve cut off access… horizontally?

Also, when Rebecca Hall needs to transfer Depp’s (apparently massive) digital consciousness out of her home setup before R.I.F.T. arrives to destroy it, it takes a few seconds; but later Depp him/it/self (now backed up by a data-center memory bank the size of a small city) somehow only has enough time/energy to either download a Hall’s injured body into his system, saving them both or download a bio/digital virus she’s been injected with that will kill them both, thus stopping his world-conquest plans (and saving Paul Bettany’s “good” scientist from being executed by R.I.F.T.) It doesn’t even make science-fiction sense that he can’t just do both things.

5. The movie doesn’t know how electricity works, either.

At the climax of the film, Cyber Johnny Depp can only be defeated by a virus that knocks his program out of existence. Because he had merged with the entirety of The Internet by then, the entire world loses The Info Superhighway, leading to post-apocalyptic dystopia where people use broken laptops as doorstops just in case a movie camera is around looking for cheesy, obvious symbolism. This means there’s no electricity – or maybe there is in some places, but it’s all rumors and hearsay.

Wait… how does that work?

I get how blowing up The Internet killed Cyber Johnny Depp, but how did it make all the electricity go away? Did turning off cyberspace make all the waterfalls power hydroelectric-generator turbines stop flowing? Did it render oil and coal inert and unusable for generating electricity? Did the sun go out? Did the wind stop? Did every storage battery simultaneously empty?

There are many more dumb plot points, but let’s just stop here and hope there won’t be a remake in 25 years. I’m looking at you Mrs. Doubtfire.

Bob Chipman
Bob Chipman is a critic and author.

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