“Transcendence” ** (out of 5)
Starring: Johnny Depp, Rebecca Hall, Paul Bettany, Kate Mara, Cillian Murphy, and Morgan Freeman
Written by: Jack Paglen
Directed by: Wally Pfister
**POSSIBLE SPOILERS AHEAD**
To paraphrase a cliché, judging a book by its’ cover can backfire in the other direction, as I have frequently discovered with cinema. You might envision that a movie depicting the merger of artificial and real intelligences could be both entertaining and mind-bending. You might think that a film with Christopher Nolan’s cinematographer of choice Wally Pfister at the helm might be as intricately constructed and well-written as Nolan’s films. You’d be wrong- at least as it pertains to Pfister’s “Transcendence”. Whether they lacked the skill, courage, or means to create a more resonant film, it most certainly does not resonate.
Johnny Depp stars (kind of) as Dr. Will Caster, the world’s foremost expert on artificial intelligence. We know this because the film makes sure to ID his brilliance on fake magazine covers, and also because he’s dressed like my former professors. Through the character’s speech at a ‘TED’-style conference, we also gather that he has a thorough understanding of humankind’s ability to approach the threshold of ‘transcendence’, a term that can have multiple definitions. In the film’s context, it is meant to explain the act of elevating a consciousness from a human state to a computerized state (or so I surmised).
Well, where there are scientists ‘playing God’, there’s sure to be tech terrorists waiting to prevent such heathenism (science) from happening. Lo and behold, a tech-savvy terrorist group led by the cutest murderer ever, Bree (Mara) steps in and poisons a lab with multiple innocent people, then shoots Dr. Caster in a crowd. (If it seems like I’m giving something away, they show all of this in the trailer) This is a hard group to sympathize with, with their efforts to prevent science from happening and all. The film doesn’t offer much to get us to understand their point- they are simply obvious thugs. They’re even shown scowling most of the time, walking ‘oafishly’ through their scenes with thug intent. Since the film isn’t interested in distinguishing these people from straight-up murderers, why bother investing time in trying to understand them?
Back to Dr. Caster- with death looming, his wife and partner Evelyn (Hall) and best bud Max (Bettany) see an opportunity: this is the chance to attempt transcendence and keep Will’s mind alive. After all, as they all agree, what’s the worst that can happen? Sure, they’re all ignoring the potential side effects of their actions, just like all the responsible scientists from “Jurassic Park”, but hey- why not? The moments leading up to the actual ‘transcendent’ event itself would be fascinating if actual science were involved. Here we are, in a room with three of the world’s top minds, and the script gives us next to nothing in the way of legitimate scientific discussion. Sure, they’re hooking Will up to a bunch of computer screens, and attaching electrodes, but what are they actually DOING? Sure, we notice an errant dry erase board in the background with some random equations scribbled, but what do they mean? This movie makes history by gathering all sorts of intelligent souls, then not bothering to illustrate their intelligence. Brilliant!
Dr. Caster does achieve the impossible- transcendence. He then does all sorts of wonderful/terrifying things to show off his delightful new role as Max Headroom (I’m likely dating myself with that reference). What does artificial Johnny Depp do with all this newfound power? First, he steals gobs of money for Evelyn, allowing her to build up a sprawling solar-powered facility in the middle of Nowhere, New Mexico to satisfy his growing needs for space and energy. Then, he begins experimenting with cellular regeneration through ‘nanobots’, a technical word for ‘creepy, microscopic metal bugs’, and invites the community to his place to fix their ailments. Naturally, there are complications, but I won’t divulge everything here. Plus, the result is neither surprising nor interesting.
I did have some questions about Omnipotent Will that the film didn’t answer: why would a transcendent being limit themselves by interacting with humans at all? For that matter, why improve humanity when all of the fun answers are beyond humanity’s reach? Sure, it’s a nice thought, but hardly believable that an AI would bother with us once it realized what it was and what we are. Why would this intelligence even need to defend itself? Couldn’t it just move somewhere else– after all, it’s connected to the internet, not confined to a physical body. Why wouldn’t something that duplicates itself thousand-fold not bother to send a version of itself into space, or at least beyond the limits of Earth so that it could expand eternally? Unfortunately, this film doesn’t have the capacity or the bravery to explore the multiple facets of the very thing it is named for- transcendence.
I believe there is a better film hidden in the ideas presented by “Transcendence”. I just can’t help but think those ideas would be more realized with better script, and perhaps a better director. Pfister has created something that seems more interested in the controversy surrounding the act of transcendence than the act itself, a thoroughly depressing missed opportunity. Fair or not, I viewed the marketing for this film and the movie itself through the rose-colored glasses of a Christopher Nolan fan, assuming that his ‘directing tree’ would produce another progressive, smart film. Naturally, Pfister’s camera produces images that look like Nolan’s, feel like Nolan’s, but clearly miss that key ingredient- meaning. I wouldn’t write off his future as a director yet- that would be unfair. This is a very good looking film, with the feel of something grander. The truth, however, is that his debut is a resounding bore-fest, a film supposedly about the dangers of science and technology, just without the benefit of any critical scientific thought, or at least the slightest bit of wonder.