Review: Transcendence (dir. Wally Pfister, 2014)

Review: Transcendence (dir. Wally Pfister, 2014) April 18, 2014

Transcendence is, in theory, the sort of film I ought to like. It’s a science fiction film with big ideas about the increasingly blurry line between humanity and technology, and it addresses the question of whether some creations can ever outgrow or improve upon their creators. The film also has some fantastic production design. It’s a treat to look at.

But in execution, the film — the first to be written by Jack Paglen and the first to be directed by Wally Pfister, a cinematographer who has shot all but one of Christopher Nolan’s films — leaves a lot to be desired, almost as though the ideas at play were simply too big for the filmmakers to really get a handle on.

Most significantly, the film sets up a conflict but can’t decide whose side it’s on — which makes for a curiously subversive bit of entertainment but also leaves the story feeling quite muddled, especially in its final moments.

The film begins with a prologue set in the future, which lets us know that society has taken a major technological step backwards.

The networks that we currently depend on for just about everything have failed somehow, and computers are useless now and literally used as doorstops. Max Waters (Paul Bettany), a former scientist, lets us know in a voice-over that many cities are without power, and the fact that armed soldiers openly patrol the streets suggests that a certain degree of chaos has set in, though we never really see any.

Then the film jumps back in time five years.

Will Caster (Johnny Depp), an artificial-intelligence expert, is giving a presentation in which he suggests it would be a wonderful thing if all the computers in the world — which are already infinitely smarter than us — became self-aware, too. When someone in the audience (played by Lukas Haas) says Caster is trying to create a “god”, Caster replies that humanity has always created its own gods.

Minutes later, the audience member in question confronts Caster outside the auditorium and shoots him, before committing suicide. And this, it turns out, was part of a coordinated terrorist attack against artificial-intelligence scientists in general.

Caster survives the shooting, only to discover that the bullet was poisoned and so he has only weeks to live.

As it happens, Caster had recently experimented with uploading a monkey’s consciousness into a super-intelligent computer, so Caster’s wife, Evelyn (Rebecca Hall), proposes to their friend and colleague Max — the person we saw in the prologue — that they try uploading Caster’s consciousness to the computer instead.

Evelyn seems to think that if they can make a back-up, as it were, of Caster’s brain, then perhaps he won’t die. But of course, Caster will die. The question is whether Evelyn can create a reasonable facsimile of him to keep her company.

That’s a pretty creepy and unnerving premise, right there, but the film never quite conveys just how creepy and unnerving it is. Instead, when Caster is dead and his voice comes through the computer’s speech synthesizers, Evelyn sheds tears of happiness, as though the spirit of her husband was really still with her — and while some characters do question that emotion, the film itself never does.

Thanks to his ability to tap into the entire internet, “Caster” gains more and more power and develops newer, indeed more “godlike”, abilities. He quickly assimilates enough money to enable Evelyn to buy a small town in the middle of nowhere, where they hire people to set up an endless field of solar panels and an underground laboratory so that “Caster” can experiment with nanotechnology and the ability to restore living tissue.

Eventually “Caster” begins to heal actual people — and he not only heals them, but enhances their bodies while making each of them part of his broader telepathic network. He claims these people still have autonomy, but they also work as a collective unit, which would seem to suggest that they are all servants to “Caster” himself, carrying out his will as he sees fit.

Interestingly, Evelyn herself remains separate from this network, and there were times when I wondered how she could continue to relate to “Caster” as though he was still basically just another person, albeit one trapped inside a machine.

Remember how, in Watchmen, Dr. Manhattan’s girlfriend was offended when she discovered that he had other bodies conducting scientific experiments and the like while she and he were supposed to be making love? Or remember how, in Spike Jonze’s Her, the artificial intelligence voiced by Scarlett Johannson reveals that she has been busy connecting with other people — and other artificial intelligences — throughout her relationship with the film’s protagonist?

Similarly, an artificial intelligence as powerful as “Caster” would clearly have to be doing a lot of that sort of multitasking in the background while interacting with Evelyn, yet she never seems to really face this fact. Instead, she remains remarkably incurious about what’s going on behind the facade that he presents to her on screen after screen.

Admittedly, she does get unnerved eventually by the fact that “Caster” projects his voice through the mouths of the people who are connected to his network. Remember the “surrogate” scene in Her? I have often wondered how popular that film would be if it had been about a male computer program that arranges for a man to come over and have sex unexpectedly with a female protagonist, and there are scenes in Transcendence that at least hint at how disturbing such a scenario could be.

Evelyn also objects to the fact that “Caster” can scan her body functions and thereby read her emotions, which she insists are hers, and ought to be private.

On the one hand, I sympathize: part of the mystery of marriage is that, even though two people are “one flesh” in some sense, they are still fundamentally two different persons. Things can be severely unbalanced when one partner (in this case, Evelyn) is no longer a mystery to the other on some level.

And yet, on the other hand, in a world where entire TV shows such as Lie to Me have explored the idea that careful attention to body language can reveal whether a person is lying or telling the truth, it’s not so hard to see why “Caster” can’t be fooled.

Eventually “Caster’s” cult out in the middle of nowhere attracts the attention of the FBI, who consider putting a stop to it with the help of the neo-Luddites who assassinated Caster and his colleagues in the first place.

And note: this is a purely pre-emptive strike that the FBI is contemplating. At this point in the story, “Caster” has not attacked or harmed anyone. He has, admittedly, “brainwashed” his followers, but they all joined his community voluntarily. Feel free to read whatever Waco-themed subtext you like into this part of the film.

(You could argue that “Caster” imposed his consciousness on his first few followers, at least, without asking their permission first — but then, how do we really know? If it is impossible for a human or a computer to prove that he or it is “self-aware”, then how much more difficult would it be to prove that there is coercion rather than cooperation between a human and a computer when they interface so seamlessly?)

Ultimately, the subversive thrust of this film is that “Caster” actually does represent the betterment of humanity, indeed of the entire planet — and that human fear of this technology will be our undoing, and maybe even the planet’s, too.

So the film wavers between the promise of utopia and the fear of dystopia. On the utopian side, we see plants and people heal — we even see a forest sprout in an instant, like the trees that grow from an Edenic seed in Darren Aronofsky’s Noah! — while on the dystopian side, we see what looks like the loss of individuality.

Thematically, this is somewhat reminiscent of a recurring theme on the Star Trek TV shows, where the various captains or the people they encounter had to choose between freedom and perfection. (Naturally, they chose freedom; the ability to walk out of Eden on our own steam was a theme they sometimes spelled out quite explicitly.)

But there’s one key difference here: “Perfection” in those stories was stagnant; it held people back from growing into something better and more enlightened. But the “perfection” offered by “Caster” is, itself, the end result of growth and evolution.

Star Trek did, admittedly, play with the notion that growth and evolution could result in a different kind of “perfect” stagnation, most notably with the Borg. And the people who have joined “Caster’s” movement do behave like the Borg at times — but they don’t actually look as grotesque and dehumanized as the Borg drones do. Indeed, instead of amputating their limbs and replacing them with mechanical prosthetics, “Caster” outwardly restores them to something resembling full humanity.

As with Star Trek, so with other films and TV shows: The natural impulse of a lot of popular science fiction has been to take the side of freedom, even if it means chaos. Consider how the film version of I, Robot took Isaac Asimov’s concluding idea — that it would be a good thing if computers secretly took over the world — and flipped it on its head, by imagining that that would be a very bad thing instead.

During the final scenes in Transcendence, it is tempting to think that the film is doing what most other films have done in that regard: that it is siding with the agents and terrorists who are determined to bring “Caster” down, and that it is portraying “Caster” as some sort of Frankenstein’s monster that needs to be stopped.

But the tragic tone of the conclusion, and its resemblance to the final romantic moments of a certain Star Trek movie, suggest otherwise.

And so, like our opening narrator Max, and ultimately like the emotionally conflicted Evelyn herself, the film can’t decide where its sympathies lie, or what it should do.

This confusion extends even to “Caster” himself, though I can’t say much more about that without getting into spoilers. Suffice it to say that, for an entity that has clear goals and an incredible ability to think several steps ahead of everyone else, he seems curiously indecisive in the film’s final scenes.

Is this a sign that Caster’s conflicted human soul still lurks within the machine somewhere? Maybe, but it leaves the film feeling kind of aimless and unsure of itself.

Acting-wise, the film benefits from decent performances.

In addition to the Dark Knight alumni who have worked with Pfister before — notably Morgan Freeman as one of Caster’s colleagues (the older, wiser one, of course) and Cillian Murphy as the FBI agent — the film also brings in Iron Man 3 veterans Hall, who does all of the emotional heavy lifting here, and Bettany, the latter of whom voiced an artificial intelligence himself in the Marvel Comics movies.

The one “off” note in the whole thing is, alas, the man at the heart of it all: Depp never quite shakes off the sense that he’s too cool for this story; as an acquaintance put it on Twitter, he seems bored, even during the scenes when his character is alive.

I did, however, like the repeated image of a circuit board sitting in a dreamcatcher. And I think I even chuckled out loud at the reference to Alan Turing.

So the film is not without its good points. It just could have been a fair bit better.

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