It’s both a fascinating, excited time as well as a frightening one. It’s not hard to see that, while these technologies are there for the betterment of the human experience, we could very easily be developing our ways into a fractured and destroyed future. If film and television have taught us anything in the past decades it’s that technology can only ever lead to one inevitable conclusion. In some fashion the increase in technology will lead to the destruction of mankind. As our understanding of our world becomes greater, so too does our ability to unravel it. That line between progress and defeat, that’s the very line that Transcendence asks it’s viewer to contemplate.
At the edge of that line are Will and Evelyn Caster (Johnny Depp and Rebecca Hall). The husband and wife duo are the leading names in the field of experimental advanced artificial intelligence along with their lifelong friend, Max Waters (Paul Bettany). As we learn early in the film at a keynote speech Will gives to potential investment partners, the development of a fully self-aware A.I. could lead to progress the likes of which humanity has never seen. A consciousness that houses an intelligence greater than that of the entire history of human life combined, or as Will calls it, transcendence. He speaks of a world with the knowledge to heal all of it’s ailments, to clean it’s waters, dilute it’s pollution and cleanse the sick, all from the creation of a living, thinking supercomputer.
It isn’t long before we realize that not everyone in the world shares Will’s optimistic view on artificial intelligence, as Will is brutally attacked after his speech by a group calling themselves Revolutionary Independence from Technology, or RIFT. Left to die from an infection suffered at the hands of his assailant, Will is left to the ingenuity of Max and Evelyn and Max as they work to create a way to transfer Will’s consciousness into a computer, so that he may at least live on in mind, if not body. All the while this truth must be hidden from Joseph (Morgan Freeman), Will’s colleague in the field of AI and Agent Buchanan (Cillian Murphy), the government official working to take down the terrorist organization that attacked Will along with multiple computer labs all working on the creation of a self aware A.I.
What happens next is where the movie really begins to find it’s footing. As Evelyn believes fully that the being within the computer is her late husband’s mind completely transcended, Max has his doubts, and the two have a rift form between them. As Will is eventually uploaded to the internet, his full potential is unlocked, and we see the full promise of technology run rampant. Whether this technology is ever truly possible is a matter of mere speculation, and speculation by minds far more advanced than mine, but what a world that would be. Being able to construct matter out of thin air, repair broken bones and torn flesh with nanobot technology and even giving human beings an evolutionary advantage with enhanced strength and healing. How the world, specifically Max, RIFT and the government, reacts to this technology is less than excited, though. Director Wally Pfister handles it relatively well, and the spectacle of this technology plays out in a fittingly beautiful final act that features plenty of special effects wizardry.
Speaking of the director, Wally Pfister is a name everyone who follows cinema should know. One of the most talented minds in cinematography for over a decade, he’s most notably connected to the works of Christopher Nolan, who serves yet again in a producer’s capacity for Transcendence. Pfister has finally made the transition to directing and while the end result is a bit of a mixed bag, it’s hard not to say that it’s a successful first outing. As expected from somebody of his background, Pfister has crafted a visually stunning movie that also has much of the grounded base that Nolan’s own works have. It’s a higher take on Science Fiction, and the only real drawback is that the film tends to drag on a bit longer than it might had this been a later work in his career. There are some moments we spend a bit too long on heavy exposition and some of the logical leaps characters make don’t always add up. It’s hard to believe that the government agency that was working so closely with Will and Evelyn would simply ignore the signs of what is happening with Evelyn now that her husband has been uploaded to the global communication tool that is the internet, especially when a company held in her own name makes over $30 million on the stock market instantaneously. That kind of information would be what we call a red flag, and something every agency aware of her situation would surely notice immediately.
Those problems are more at a script level, though, and for the most part, Transcendence is a very enjoyable film that asks a lot of it’s viewer. By the end of the film I found myself asking whether this new self-aware AI was really a villain at all, if his motives were for self preservation like we were told, or if he really was trying to save the world, and the world simply grew afraid of what they did not understand. That kind of emotional and logical response was what I feared Transcendence would be lacking, but luckily I was incorrect in my hesitation.
It should be noted that Depp is in rare form in Transcendence. He may still be far removed from the flashes of brilliance he’d shown in his early career, but for the first time in nearly a decade he has stepped out of the boots of Jack Sparrow and found a role that doesn’t feel like an awkward shell of a human being or a cheap imitation of that same character. Much of this is likely owed to the fact that Depp spends the vast majority of his screen time in Transcendence as the disembodied digital talking head of his deceased self, rather than the actual Will Caster, having to act opposite his fellow cast members, but still it’s a nice change of pace from some of his more recent fare. The rest of the cast fills out nicely, with special notice going to Paul Bettany, an actor for whom I’ve made no mistake of mentioning how much I admire his work. While his role is central to the plot, he spends too little of it on screen, especially because when he is there, he’s the best actor in sight. Hopefully he has a true breakout soon, and it might be coming in the form of Avengers: Age of Ultron, depending on how big Joss Whedon plans on making The Vision character. Either way, Bettany hits all of the right emotional cues, and serves as the anchor for most of the film, as he both opens and closes it with monologues.
Transcendence is a slightly higher thinking Science Fiction film that may ask more of it’s viewers than some want to give. It slows down a bit too much for it’s own good in the middle, but a strong ending and moral dilemma help it become a bit more than I was expecting from it, and a strong outing for a freshman director with a ton of pedigree behind him. What comes next for Wally Pfister should prove to be a very interesting prospect, and one that I now look forward to greatly.