The basis for Transcendence‘s story is hardly original; the man versus machine plot line is one that has appeared in abundance in western cinema. However, in 2014, with the hold that the internet and social media has over us, we truly live in a digital age – proving movies like this to be more relevant than ever. Earlier this year, Spike Jonze’s Her created a plausible cinematic world in which the main character started a relationship with an artificial intelligence system to excellent effect. Here we see Wally Pfister retire his position as Christopher Nolan’s resident cinematographer for the moment, to make his own debut as a director of a similar story to Jonze’s, though much grander in scope. The result is nowhere near as successful as Her, primarily due to a humourless and poor script.
At the beginning of the movie, we are introduced to Dr. Will Caster (Johnny Depp), a researcher of artificial intelligence who is set to speak at a presentation organised by his wife – fellow researcher Evelyn (Rebecca Hall). At said presentation, Will is shot by a member of an anti-technology activist group who oppose his attempts to create ‘transcendence’ – the event of an artificial entity becoming self-aware. These opening scenes are solid and present some interesting ideas, specifically the introduction of this extremist organisation led by Bree (Kate Mara) who aim to loosen the grasp that technology has over humanity. As soon as Evelyn and friend/colleague Max Waters (Paul Bettany) upload Will’s consciousness to the internet after his death, the plot plunges into a bit of a silly mess.
As a transcendant digi-Will leads Evelyn out to a remote area in the desert where they can continue their research, and Max is kidnapped by Bree’s extremist group, the plot propels itself forward without spending any time on real character development. Apart from ‘two years later’ overlaying a shot of desert at one point in the movie, the passage of time in the story is unclear throughout – we’re not sure if it’s weeks or months that are passing as the movie races towards the ending glimpsed in its prologue. The overarching question underlaying the plot of whether this technological incarnation really is Will should be an intriguing one, but it isn’t handled as well as it should or could be. Transcendence lacks the philosophical layering that is essential when dealing with these themes of humanity versus technology, and consequentially the payoff to these questions surrounding digi-Will’s own humanity is devoid of any true satisfaction. The basic philosophy throughout most of the movie as we see Will’s vast project grow in the desert seems to be ‘technology is bad’. This stops the film from becoming anything more than a generic thriller, as Evelyn grows more and more scared of her dead husband’s capabilities.
It isn’t helpful that many of the elements of the film are pretty illogical; we see nanotechnology help Will to start inexplicably creating some kind of super-soldier army. The presence of Cillian Murphy’s FBI Agent Donald Buchanan in the movie is also nonsensical to a degree – throughout most of the two hours we only see him properly associate with scientist Joseph Tagger (Morgan Freeman), apparently free of any authority or jurisdiction as he handles a case that could affect the whole of humanity in apocalyptic ways. Of course, if the story had taken the time to have moments focusing on its characters and their growth, then these kinds of problems could have been avoided.
While Pfister’s first outing as director isn’t the greatest, it does have some redeeming features. The movie is quite pretty to look at, but Pfister doesn’t act as his own director of photography – Jess Hall takes the reins instead – and the film would undoubtedly have looked even better if he had. Rebecca Hall stands out as the best actor of the A-list cast, as we see her harrowing portrayal of a woman who doesn’t know if she can trust a revitalised version of her husband. Depp, on the other hand, seems pretty wooden throughout – even before his digital resurrection – which doesn’t help in the selling of the Casters’ romantic connection. Basically, if you want to see a film which contains an accurate commentary on technology’s relationship with humanity, which is at its core a love story, you should just go and watch Her.