Back in the early to mid 90s, there was a series of films about the coming wonders and nightmares about the internet, but in hindsight they had all the finesse of George W. Bush’s description of the World Wide Web as a series of tubes, and were almost as prescient too. Watching Transcendence, one is taken back to a more innocent time when the internet was an unknown unknown, and thus capable of anything and everything because the audience didn’t know the difference. But it’s been 20 years since flicks like The Net and Lawnmower Man and Virtuosity, and the internet has become ingrained in almost every facet of our world. In 2014, even the most luddite of audience members isn’t going to buy the film’s magical portrayal of technology. And by “magic,” I mean literal magic.
The film starts off promising enough with a group of anti-technology terrorists launching attacks against scientists working on developing artificial intelligence. Dr. Will Caster (Johnny Depp), a pre-eminent expert in the field, is one of the one’s attacked, shot in the stomach with a radioactive bullet. With Will dying slowly, his wife and research partner Evelyn (Rebecca Hall) come up with a radical idea: to upload Will’s mind into their experimental A.I., what Will calls “Transcendence.” The Casters’ good friend Max (Paul Bettany) assists them turning Will’s mind into a computer, but he’s almost instantly regretful of the decision, and has his doubts about computer Will’s intentions when he starts insisting on more power and internet access.
The terrorists, including leader Bree (Kate Mara), also have their doubts and they try to stop Evelyn from giving Will unfettered access to everything electronic without success. Will leads Evelyn to the middle of the desert and a ghost town where they begin to set up a facility with the goal to change the world. Will gains more and more power, including the ability to repair people, and then network them to him, through nanites. So because the situation is getting progressively more messed up, the government, led by FBI Agent Buchanan (Cillian Murphy), teams up with the terrorists, to take Will Caster out.
And just like that, a supposed techno-thriller with high-minded sci-fi ambitions becomes basically no better than your average Tom Clancy novel. And not to spoil the ending or anything, but the way that the characters come up with the plan to take out Will is so scientifically implausible it makes the computer virus plan from Independence Day look like it was taken from a peer reviewed journal. More than that the whole thing ends up looking like World War Z with army guys fighting against what could generously be described as zombies, thanks to a thorough misunderstanding of nanite technology, and its capabilities. Scientifically speaking, there’s not much difference between Star Wars and Transcendence.
As for the human element, I think there’s more said about the nature of artificial intelligence and its relation to human beings in one episode of the weekly adventures of Person of Interest, a series about agents saving the world thanks to the assistance of a sentient computer program that sees trouble coming. The rules are what make it believable, the limitations. It really seems that in Transcendence, “computer” is synonymous with magic, and that’s more or less what made those 90s hits unbelievable, even when watching them in the days dial-up was top of the line technology. So in the end, we’re left with the performances, and if the script let the technobabble down, it should have at least got the humans right, right?
Depp isn’t asked to do much. He spends 90 per cent of his screen time appearing on plasma TVs and sounding vaguely robotic, much of the rest he’s stricken with the most heroically handsome case of radiation poisoning I’ve ever seen. Hall, meanwhile, is certainly capable of good work, but the script does her no favors and asks her play Evelyn, in many respects, just as robotically as Depp is called to play the computer Will. The script also struggles with the logic of Evelyn’s own motivations; she seems mostly okay with the idea that Will’s started to control the townspeople with his nanite-fuelled benevolence, but when he appraises her emotional state by scanning her vital signs, that’s a bridge too far.
Frankly, it’s hard to know what any of the human characters in this movie are thinking. The terrorists, who seem so methodical and capable in their opening salvo, kind of lose steam in the two years between when Will and Evelyn establish their techno-utopia and when the second half of the movie takes place. Seriously, when the kid rides his bike into town, and throws leaflets in the air, I think you officially lose your terrorist credentials no matter how many people you’ve kill. However, they’re seriously more effective than the government, who seem quite good at creating evidence boards, but somewhat less effective at acting on any of that gathered information. Morgan Freeman, as an FBI advisor on A.I. matters, is utterly wasted here.
Normally in these situations, I’d stop looking for depth and start enjoying the movie for the entertainment value, but that’s also a tricky subject. The movie opens with a prologue that more or less takes the air out of any dramatic tension there might have been in the film. It’s hard to be on the edge of your seat when you now the fate of the main characters and you know the headlines of the film’s denouement. It may have been an artistic decision, or perhaps director Wally Pfister took the wrong lesson from working on all those Christopher Nolan films that have ambivalent endings.
To Pfister’s credit, his eye as a director is as good as his eye as a cinematographer. The film looks great, especially the desert setting that occupies most of the film. The effects work is also beautifully subtle, and if the nanites must be magical, then the effect is correctly applied because the scenes with rapid nanite healing look amazing. Pfister also wisely recruited Nolan regulars like Freeman, Murphy and Hall, as well as other quality actors like Depp and Bettany, but once they get in front of the camera it seems like he doesn’t know what to do with them.
In the end though, I think it comes down to the script. If you didn’t have doubts before about a Jack Paglen-scripted Battlestar Galactica movie, be afraid. Be very afraid. The nuance and subtlety of Ronald D. Moore’s series will probably seem as alien to him as actual aliens. I never thought I’d look back on the RoboCop remake from earlier this year, and say, “There’s a movie that knows something about the modern struggle between man and machine,” but here we are. Transcendence may come from the finest minds, but they’re the finest minds of 1991.