While the execution leaves you wanting – this is one of 2014’s first big disappointments – Wally Pfister’s Transcendence features a simple but irresistible premise: dying Artificial Intelligence scientist Will Caster (played by Johnny Depp) has his brain information transferred into a computer in order to live indefinitely and continue his work.
But is this digitized output of the Caster’s brain activity – his thoughts, memories, speech patterns and other physical and mental characteristics – really him, or is there an intangible soul that couldn’t be ported over? And given the computer enhancements to his brain – instant and total recall of not only his own personal data, but everything else he can find once connected to the net – what will he become?
Pfister’s film faithfully explores these ideas – and more – and adds a touching love story between Caster’s digital image and his wife and fellow scientist Evelyn (Rebecca Hall), who grows wary of what her husband is turning into. At its heart, the film explores some similar thematic ground to Her, though any comparison between the two won’t favor Transcendence.
Given his limitless abilities, the digitized Caster is able to make millions overnight; soon, he directs his wife to build a desert complex to host the processors and power he requires to make scientific leaps in nanotechnology. Here, Will creates the Prometheus/Elysium medical pods, and soon he’s curing blindness and paralysis from local townspeople who come in seeking treatment – while also implanting nanobots inside their minds to hook them into his network. (Do the patients know about this? Transcendence seems to shy away from the gritty details.)
Of course, Caster’s progress draws the ire of RIFT (Revolutionary Independence from Technology), the anti-technology terrorist sect that ended his physical existence in the first place. Led by Bree (Kata Mara), RIFT kidnaps Caster’s friend and colleague Max (Paul Bettany) with the goal of turning him against Will and Evelyn.
Caught in the middle of all of this is the FBI and Agent Buchanan (Cillian Murphy), who is tracking both Caster and RIFT with the help of the world-wise scientist and voice of reason Joseph Tagger, played by (who else?) Morgan Freeman.
After combating RIFT for years, but weary of what Caster’s progress might mean for mankind, Tagger is unsure where to place his allegiance (in one of the film’s most memorable scenes, with echoes of 2001: A Space Odyssey, Tagger slips Evelyn a hand-written warning with a smile and a nod, in an attempt to avoid the all-seeing eyes of Caster).
The ambiguity is one of the things I liked best about Transcendence; while the film could have very easily become a mankind vs. technology diatribe, it refuses to take sides. Caster’s progress is ultimately beneficial for the planet and humankind, but it represents a drastic – and scary – change that many will struggle to accept.
But that change seems inevitable: many of the ideas in Transcendence come from scientist Ray Kurzweil, who was profiled in the engaging 2009 documentary Transcendent Man (and who very likely inspired the Caster character). Kurzweil argues that we will outgrow our biology during the first half of this century.
“AI is not an intelligent invasion from Mars,” he says. “These are brain extenders that we have created to expand our own mental reach. They are part of our civilization. They are part of who we are. So over the next few decades our human-machine civilization will become increasingly dominated by its non-biological component.”
But while the ideas behind Transcendence are truly fascinating – and the film itself interesting enough to maintain your attention for its 120-minute running time – the result is somewhat flat: a hybrid of futurist ideology and mainstream blockbuster, the film is neither heady enough to blow your mind, nor engaging enough to really work as a sci-fi thriller. All the pieces here are first-rate, but the finished product is decidedly low in energy.
Debut director Pfister was previously a cinematographer, best known for his collaborations with Christopher Nolan (he shot the Dark Knight trilogy, and won an Oscar for Inception). It’s ironic, then, that his film, despite some polished work from Jess Hall (Hot Fuzz), features few of the memorable visuals that he provided Nolan.
While writers, editors, and others involved in the creative process frequently become directors, cinematographers making the jump seem to be much rarer (some exceptions over the past few decades being Barry Sonnenfeld and Jan de Bont), signaling, perhaps, that having a good feeling for the look of a film doesn’t always transition to a feel for the storytelling.
Nolan passed on Transcendence to make Interstellar (hitting screens later this year), but I’m not sure anyone could have made first-time scribe Jack Paglen’s script really take off. Packed with neat ideas but lacking the capacity to fully explore them, the screenplay reaches some intermittent moments of brilliant clarity – we can see what attracted this kind of talent to the material – but ultimately feels unfocused.
Transcendence features a terrific supporting cast filled with familiar faces, many of whom are on screen for only fleeting moments. Wallace Langham (as Caster’s doctor), Lukas Haas (as his assassin), and Xander Berkely (as a fellow scientist) get about a minute of screen time, combined; Cole Hauser, Josh Stewart, and Clifton Collins, Jr. only get a little more. But all the characters – even Depp’s Caster – feel underwritten, with the possible exception of Hall’s Evelyn.
A proponent of film over digital, Pfister not only shot the movie on 35mm film, but also finished the movie without the use of a digital intermediate. That’s commendable, even if it feels a little disingenuous when the finished film is loaded with digital effects (mostly employed to animate the nanotechnology during the film’s final act).
While the premise of Transcendence is nothing new – heck, Wikipedia even has a page devoted to this kind of thing – it’s one of the more realistic approaches to the material; one of the scariest things about this sci-fi film is that it takes place in present day. Transcendence may not completely work as intended, but this brand of intelligent sci-fi is too rare to completely dismiss.