Transcendence Raises Important Questions, But Fails to Think Them Through
Hiding somewhere between the awful dialogue, cardboard performances, and lackluster visual landscape of Transcendence is a noble but failed attempt to seriously grapple with some of the most important questions of our time: How do we classify the current nature of man’s relationship to technology? Where is it headed? And most importantly, how are we supposed to feel about it?
In the film, Johnny Depp plays Dr. Will Caster, a scientist working on an A.I. project with his loving wife, Evelyn (Rebecca Hall). At a public appearance, Will is shot with a radiation-laced bullet by a member of a “neo-Luddite” organization that opposes any attempts to merge machines with the human mind. He survives initially but not for long: As the radiation courses through his system, Evelyn and Will's best friend (Paul Bettany) scramble to save him.
You know where this is going. Once they upload his DNA onto a server, the digital “Will” goes mad with power, accessing computers on Wall Street, at the Pentagon, and pretty much everywhere else for his personal gain. Eventually, an FBI agent (a criminally underused Cillian Murphy) teams up with a skeptical colleague of Will’s (Morgan Freeman) to try to stop him from taking over the universe.
What’s intriguing about this set-up is that it’s not clear just who we're supposed to root for. At first, it seems apparent that Will and Evelyn are our heroes, and the radicals who attack him are the villains. But as Will goes mad with power, and Evelyn is blinded by her love for him, the tables slowly but surely turn, and there are moments in the middle of the story when we are left with no hero at all. It’s a provocative structure that sacrifices a satisfying commercial experience—the audience needs a reliable entry point to the story—to represent our ambiguous relationship with technology.
So it is even more disappointing when the film squanders that potential on a simplistic, Hollywood resolution and underdeveloped characters. Transcendence is the kind of film whose characters speak only in grand, declarative statements about the nature of reality but never give us an inkling about who they are or why we should care. It’s hard to imagine what drew such well-respected actors to it, except confidence in first-time director Wally Pfister, who has burnished a solid reputation as the director of photography for all of Christopher Nolan’s films (Memento, The Dark Knight trilogy). It is immediately evident that Pfister has no skill for choosing a screenplay or working with actors, but what’s really surprising is how pedestrian the film looks. Pfister created unique visual landscapes in films like The Dark Knight and Insomnia, but Transcendence lacks any sense of visual purpose.
Of course, all of these specific flaws stem from a more general one: the film has nothing original to say about this very real collision of man and technology that many experts predict is only a few decades away (scientists refer to this as the “singularity”). It is not a new subject to cinema; from 2001: A Space Odyssey to last year’s Her, movies have always offered a safe space to explore our complicated feelings about technology. But Transcendence adds nothing new to the conversation, and its central conceit—that man’s unending pursuit of artificial intelligence is, you know, bad—feels less like a serious inquiry and more like a book report from a kid who hasn’t actually read the book.