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‘Transcendence’

by Giovanni Fazio

Has the digital backlash begun? Spike Jonze’s “Her” and Wally Pfister’s “Transcendence” both open this weekend, and while they’re very different films — one with a nerdy guy falling in love with his sultry-voiced operating system, the other a mind-bending thriller about uploading human consciousness into a mainframe — they both view the digital utopia being promised to us by the technophiles with skepticism. In fact, “Transcendence” opens with the iconic image of a tablet being used as a doorstop; a piece of high-tech junk in a post-Internet future.

Pfister is Christopher Nolan’s regular director of photography, and you can sense the connection all through “Transcendence.” This film is Pfister’s directorial debut, and he mines the same mind-game vein of Nolan’s “Inception.” It’s part Frankenstein myth crossed with the quest to build an artificial intelligence (AI), but also borrows liberally from Philip K. Dick’s “The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch,” in which an unwanted deity takes up residence in host bodies.

Johnny Depp and Rebecca Hall play Will and Evelyn Caster, a brainy power couple working in AI. They’re the sort of digital proselytizers who might appear on the cover of Wired magazine.

“Imagine a machine … with the collective intelligence of every person in the history of the world,” gushes Will, expressing an ideology that gets him targeted for assassination by a neo-Luddite radical group. Gravely wounded, Will has only days to live, but Evelyn and his somewhat dubious colleague Max (Paul Bettany) try to upload his brain into their experimental supercomputer. To their surprise, they succeed, but while Evelyn is convinced it really is Will’s consciousness inside the machine, Max is doubtful, and worried that once it gets online, it will “copy itself to every hard drive in the world and then there’s no taking it down.”

Soon, Will has spread across the Net, tapping into all of humankind’s information — and bank accounts — along the way. He (or it) convinces Evelyn to build an underground data farm in a desert town, where they create some revolutionary nanotech that can miraculously heal wounds, but in the process the healed become hardwired into his brain.

One nation under Will, indivisible, seems to be the plan, so Max teams up with an FBI Agent (Cillian Murphy) and AI researcher Tagger (Morgan Freeman) to take him out.

“Transcendence” starts off as a fairly heady look at the impending culture war between the technophiles and technophobes, but the plot gets increasingly outrageous with each reel, and a commando raid on Tasker’s compound late in the film is pretty rote action-movie fare … rather the same course that “Inception” took, actually. The weak link, dare I say it, is Depp, who, despite doing his best HAL 9000 impersonation, turns in yet another hammy performance.

For a chance to win one of three “Transcendence” clear files, visit http://jtimes.jp/film.