Quite arguably since the beginning of time (at least for storytelling purposes), there have been narratives about the dangers of forbidden knowledge. And whether your name is Eve, Prometheus, Frankenstein, or Sarah Connor, these stories always tend to end badly for the protagonists, reflecting an endless anxiety and uncomfortableness with the ever fluctuating modern world.
So forgive us for being suspicious of the technological malevolence implicit in a title like Transcendence, a science fiction mishmash picture featuring almost as much ambition as its core group of fickle heroes, who are out searching for the point of “singularity” wherein artificial intelligence can truly exist. Within seconds on the internet, this faceless being would become the smartest and most dangerous mind to have ever existed. It is a ponderous concept that attempts to rework the menace of HAL 9000 for the smartphone generation, tracking the prophetic rise of an omnipotent being who drifts through the wind like God or, more terrifyingly, the iCloud. Yet strangely, the movie would seem to think this is a good thing.
Transcendence begins with the typical “off-the-grid” survivalists, who usually populate these movies as the heroes, being perhaps a little too off the reservation. The same day that artificial intelligence pioneer Will Caster (Johnny Depp) is shot for giving a lecture that compares a fully self-aware AI computer to God, another colleague is murdered, and a third, Joseph Tagger (Morgan Freeman), is seriously threatened. The government is depicted exclusively in the shady guise of Cillian Murphy, and he wants answers. But Will only wants to get back to his work. However, complications arise when it becomes apparent that the bullet meant to kill him will finish the job in four short weeks, because it was laced with radiation. As he dies a painful death, Will’s wife Evelyn (Rebecca Hall) and his best friend Max (Paul Bettany) decide to skip a few steps and go straight to human testing when they upload what they hope is the totality Will’s consciousness and brain activity to a computer.
For almost the entire rest of the movie, Depp’s face is merely reflected back to the fanatical and desperate love covering Hall’s eyes as she dutifully listens to her software spouse. Able to tap into Wall Street in only a few hours, “Will” makes Evelyn an instant multimillionaire through countless micro-transactions, which are all the better for her to feed his building curiosity with their own private satellite city in the middle of some nameless desert. In another several years, “Will” has created a fully automated workforce (he implants crippled and suffering individuals with newly invented nano-bots for a “cure” that comes at a steep, steep price), and Evelyn is experiencing buyer’s remorse on the machine that looks and sounds like her husband, even as it amasses a small army, not to mention the attention of the U.S. military. Then there is also Max, who after being kidnapped by Will’s killers, the anti-technology group “Rift,” is now leading the revolution against the Internet as a true blue believer that “Will” is not his dead friend.
If it all sounds a little bit muddled that is because it is.
Incredibly high on ambition, Transcendence tackles many questions about our technological age and finds several unique avenues to reimagine the fear of Skynet/HAL/Robby the Robot for the 21st century. Whether it is the economic fear of Wall Street computers redefining the speed with which shares are traded on the New York Stock Exchange or the fact that “Will’s” ability to weed out undesirables makes the NSA look like mall cops fumbling over CCTV, Transcendence touches on a number of new phobias in the post-Zuckerberg world. Yet, while it is throwing out all of these admittedly fascinating questions, the movie is simultaneously attempting to dodge them by grounding its story in a lifeless romance between Will and Evelyn. This is no fault of Hall, who deserves more spotlight for her talent, and indeed makes the most out of giving Transcendence its only human touch in 120 minutes. But when the movie is intentionally contradictory, suggesting that “Will” is her husband and doing things out of love while simultaneously becoming the social media boogeyman with his own techno-version of the Island of Dr. Moreau, it is more exhausting than engrossing.
Director Wally Pfister works admirably with a large budget and a pedigreed cast. However, when one already has an Oscar for the cinematography work on Inception—just one of the many collaborations he’s had with Christopher Nolan as the go-to DP on The Dark Knight Trilogy and The Prestige, among others—it is easy to see how all the talent lined up. Indeed, with Nolan and wife Emma Thomas on board as producers of Transcendence, the cast is littered with talent from the Nolan Repertory Group, including Hall, Freeman, and Murphy. And like a Nolan movie, Transcendence is bursting with big ideas in which the characters take on a fabled quality as the sum totals of viewpoints, philosophy, and thematic sticking points.
However, in those previous films that Pfister lensed, those characters also were buttressed by a compelling story and vision. In Transcendence, the amorphic pace, which is as nebulous as “Will’s” true motivations, creates a hermetic seal around the movie with so little oxygen that uniformly excellent performances are gasping for life, including a surprisingly awake and engaged Depp. Discovering the point of singularity is all well and good, but when characters treat their own impending death (or the demise of their entire 30-plus personnel staff in Freeman’s case) with all the banality of “a case of the Mondays,” it is hard to care about two supposed romantics when the fate of the world and worldwide web hangs in the balance.
Confounding it all further is the third rail subplot involving Rift. They’re led by bleach-blond wig sporting Kate Mara, who plays an MIT graduate that’s turned in her Palo Alto home for the Linda Hamilton camping regime after she started perceiving TED Talks as comparable to Third Reich rallies. Obviously, the movie’s closest simulation of a villain, Mara and Rift’s antagonistic element begins and ends with putting the bullet in Will and turning Max to their cause after he already helped integrate Will’s mind to a computer. The result is an obligatory storyline that demands more attention to explain how Max fell in with this group and just what exactly are their motives and role in a continuing shifting viewpoint from the government. But like an encrypted piece of software coding, their actions are ultimately indecipherable for most viewers.
Strangely, Transcendence operates as a curious companion piece to last year’s Her. While that Spike Jonze masterpiece chose to skirt the big questions in favor of the personal, and what it means to be human (or in love) in the 21st century, Transcendence picks up where that movie left off. Where exactly were Samantha and the other AIs going, and could they have been joining forces with Will out in his satellite paradise where the rain meets the nanos? Oddly too, the depth Pfister sought to imbue in Will and Evelyn, who had a real-life love story to build on before Will’s murder, is far better explored in that sci-fi mosaic of a romance from last year.
For all of its problems, Transcendence still attempts to ask some uncomfortable questions of its audience about our relationship with technology in a unique way and finds, if only in the movie’s closing moments, a rather daring position for a Hollywood movie to have on the prospect of technological progression. In fact, all of the movie’s big ideas and big stars, bound by sizable budget, makes Transcendence something of a rarity in the modern studio system. For that reason, there may be enough there for the intellectually curious about the movie’s intriguing premise. It’s just a shame that the finished product has so many of its wires crossed.