Director: Wally Pfister
Script: Jack Paglen
Music: Mychael Danna
Starring: Johnny Depp, Rebecca Hall, Paul Bettany, Morgan Freeman, Cillian Murphy, Kate Mara, Clifton Collins Jr, lots of computers
The world seems to have reverted back to a pre-industrial era, where all electronic things are now useless junk. Flashback to five years previously.
Dr. William Caster, his wife Evelyn, and their best friend, Max Waters, dream of helping create a better world through advanced technology. Max seeks cures for incurable diseases such as cancer, Evelyn dreams of a cleaner world though use of environmental technology, and Dr. William Caster simply wants to create the world’s first sentient AI, a technological singularity he calls “transcendence.” Will is the star of a convention where he exposes his dreams to an enraptured audience, except for two somber-looking figures. One of them asks Will if he’s seeking to create a god, given Will’s description of the boundless limits of intelligence an AI could achieve with his plans.
After the congress, this same person shoots Will, which seems like a light wound at first. At the same time, a concentrated attack by a Luddite group called RIFT (“Revolutionary Independence From Technology”) blows up installations and mass murders people in Will’s AI research and development team. The attack sets back research progress by 10 years. The FBI is called, and Agent Buchanan is invited to meet the only surviving computer from the attack, a machine of awesome computational power but dubious self-awareness. Will becomes sick, and it’s soon revealed that the bullet that grazed him was laced with a radioactive coating. The radiation poisoning has left him with only one month to live. Taking advice from Max, Will gives up his work to spend his last living moments with his beloved wife, Evelyn; however, Evelyn is not ready to give up on Will, thinking the loss of his genius mind will be a great loss for the world. She and Max create a plan to use the surviving machine’s computer power to copy Will’s mind to a digital support system. A long process of tracing all aspects of Will’s personality, memories, and feelings follows in secrecy with results uncertain. Will eventually dies, and although at first seems like the attempt was a failure, the machine soon awakes and responds as Will.
Max is spooked, claims it is merely an inhuman copy of the real Will, and leaves in distress. He is soon captured by RIFT, whose leader was one of the somber-looking people at the conference and suspects what is going on. Meanwhile, Will tells Evelyn that without corporeal structure, his mind will expand exponentially and needs a larger support system that can be found on the World Wide Web. RIFT locates the site, but Evelyn is gone and Will’s consciousness has already been downloaded onto the Internet. He soon amasses a great amount of money through stock trading and creates a form as a front for a larger project: building a facility in a remotely-located deserted town where he can develop new experiments and a solar array to power the lab.
Meanwhile, through appealing to his emotions and with a bit of Stockholm Syndrome in the mix, Max is converted to RIFT’s cause and helps create a plan to take Will down. The government representatives, Agent Buchanan and the Casters’ former college friend and scientist Tagger, visit the facility and meet the digitized Will. This encounter only convinces them that Will is now a menace, not only because he is now an unpredictable AI, but also because of his research into human regeneration. Will’s new activities even start to scare his very supportive wife when she learns that people who have been cured through Will’s nano-tech are now interconnected to Will as a hive mind. Evelyn deserts Will and joins RIFT with Max’s persuasion. Soon, even the government joins forces with RIFT, planning to use them as the fall guy if things turn out for the worst. They create a plan to take down Will with a computer virus; however, Will counterattacks by spreading the nano-tech throughout the world through wind, clouds, and rain, but RIFT’s virus can shut down all of them if the government can get a source code. They finally get the source code by kidnapping Martin, Will’s foreman and his first subject cured by nano-tech. RIFT finally attacks the facility en masse with hidden help from the government, but Will will not go down without a fight.
For the vast majority of the film, all the usual “AI gone rogue trying to conquer the world” tropes are played to the point where it is hard not to see it as a pile of the genre’s clichés. This proves true for the entire movie until the last ten minutes of the screen time, when things get completely subverted by a final plot twist. Interestingly enough, I have never seen a review that refers to this important twist that changes the entire story and puts everything into a completely new light. It’s strange indeed because this twist is what separates this film from all the other stories of AIs gone rogue. The fact that, as the plot twist reveals, there very well may have never been an AI in the story to begin with changes everything. In fact, the film’s title is misleading in that the mentioned transcendence never happens. It appears to have happened, but that notion is completely subverted by the end.
Like an unskilled card player, the movie’s biggest mistake is that it holds its best card way too long – until the very end of the game. As anybody who has played a game of cards knows, sometimes it’s a mistake to hold the best cards to the end; too often such a strategy can cause the loss of a game. So in Transcendence, holding that card for so long alienates the audience and forces them to lose all sympathy for the very character they had the most sympathy for and had sided with since the beginning. For the sake of a last minute twist and revelation, the game may have been lost and unrecoverable.
Woulda, coulda, shoulda.
Despite the flaw in plot structure, there are things to admire in this film. As befitting a film made by a former cinematographer, it looks beautiful, really beautiful.
The acting is first class from all the actors, especially Johnny Depp, whose first scenes as the living Will Caster create a very believable living human being and a very likable and personable character. It even subverts some of the usual nerd tropes by being both believable as a computer nerd, more comfortable with machines and tech, and as a person with enough charm and charisma to have gotten such a catch as Evelyn, played by a positively radiant beauty Rebecca Hall, while also charming an entire audience talking about computer stuff. No clown Depp is found here, thankfully.
The editing is quite efficient with a no-nonsense style, sometimes at the expense of going too fast in the passage of time. Were it not for captions, one would be hard pressed to understand that months or years had passed in the story.
The score by Mychael Danna is suitable for such a tech-heavy themed story, sometimes resembling his work for the Canadian TV show, Continuum. Not a bad thing, but it never reaches memorability.
Then there’s the story and the reception of the film. Reviews should avoid going meta by commenting on other reviews, but it seems to me some words should be said about it, even if it means trespassing into a no-no dark territory. I have noticed for quite some time that zeitgeist dictates the fate of so many movies. It seems that every year, most movies fall into one of four categories: good movies that are successful, bad movies that flop, bad movies that are successful, and good movies that flop. I think Transcendence is close to the last type, though it is not a movie without flaws. The aforementioned strange gamble with the plot twist, the sometimes hard to understand time editing, and a story that plays for too long like a collage of old sci-fi clichés with a twist too long in the coming are all detrimental to the overall experience of the film, but I don’t think it necessarily makes it a bad film.
There is also a certain lack of strength in the film conventions as well. The story is cleverer than it’s usually given credit for, but too often plays to a middle ground that makes for an unwinnable situation. It’s as if the movie tried to please both Greeks and Trojans, and in trying to please both never fully satisfies either.
Another lack of conviction in the movie is the depiction of Will as a digital construct. Right from the start, we see his face on the monitors, as if the movie wants to constantly remind us that they hired Johnny Depp to be in the film. I can’t help but compare this to what was done in the film Her, a movie about an AI called Samantha that achieves singularity, or true self-consciousness, and a rich personality. In that movie, we never see a visual manifestation of Samantha; we only listen to her voice. The movie very successfully makes us believe she is a full character, a full person, with just her voice. It would have been preferable that Transcendence had done the same with Will as a digital construct. Instead, we constantly see his face. The movie tries to justify this by showing a short scene when his face was digitized while alive, but it seems like a cheap way to just remind audiences that Johnny Depp is in the movie. His voice work would have sufficed and given an even greater gravitas to his character and relationship with Evelyn. Instead, by constantly seeing Will’s face, it’s hard not to feel the thing that robotics engineers call “the uncanny valley,” a feeling of discomfort people have when seeing a close simulacra of a human, a feeling that something is off. Again, the movie could have tried to create a false notion by playing a cliché to later subvert it, but it ultimately robs the movie of one of its strongest emotional shocks.
Also, the way computers are depicted in the film are… well, let me just say even a mere user like me had some moments where I was scratching my head. The film manages to be clever in some details, but like many Hollywood movies, it tends to treat computers almost as magical things with capacities way ahead of anything known today. This is fine when dealing with super-advanced computers, such as the one that is used to transplant Will’s consciousness, but when there are almost instant Internet uploads of something as huge as a human mind with lightning computation represented by flashing images on the screen of a mere iPad, well… let me just say, the last time I could believe in magically fast computers happened back in the day when I watched Electric Dreams in the theater. You know, back when Virginia Madsen was still in her very early 20s.
Another thing I should mention is that some reviewers have called the film anti-technology or a Luddite movie. Well, no, it’s not. If anything, especially thanks to the plot twist at the end, the movie is the complete opposite of that. Transcendence is very strongly anti-Luddite and very pro-technology; the movie’s entire premise is the notion of humane technology, or technology with a human face, and the film is not subtle about this point, so how it can be interpreted otherwise is a mystery to be solved by the philosophers. Personally, I don’t get it.
Final thoughts: this is not a bad movie, nor is it a great movie. It did try to be a great movie but fell short. It simply didn’t play its cards well; otherwise, it could have been a contender. Maybe Wally Pfister will have better luck next time… if he gets a next time, as this movie is not exactly the most welcomed and liked kid in the yard. Transcendence did not transcend to the high place it aimed for. Now, whether this film will be a future cult classic to be rediscovered in later years or it will just be a footnote in a bargain bin is anybody’s guess. I do not know which; I’m not a soothsayer.
There is an expression that sadly I find myself using way too often in regard to too many movies: There is somewhere inside a better movie trying to get out.
Yeah, this movie, too.
This is Asimovlives, signing out.