“Maybe it was inevitable, an unavoidable collision between mankind and technology,” warns the voiceover of Max Waters (Paul Bettany), setting the scene as he visits the near derelict home of his former colleagues Will and Evelyn Caster before recounting the events that changed the world, how Will, an artificial intelligence researcher and futurist, was murdered and his memory uploaded to a virtual environment, and of how the world reacted to that leap in the blending of technology and humanity, questioning whether the simulation was truly sentient and what it would mean for the future of the world, many reacting with unthinking hostility against an entity smarter and more capable than they could compete with.
Johnny Depp is Doctor Will Caster, who plays records and hides in his garden, the soft strings which accompany his appearance signalling that he is a nice guy and that the audience should trust him. As both a very modern Frankenstein and his own creation, Depp underplays to the point of indifference, and as the question of whether the simulation of Will is in fact a genuinely sentient “person” is the crux of the film, with so little known of him before the attack it is impossible for an audience to judge, and while many of the actions of the simulation indicate automated self-preservation, the inconsistency implies that there may be a flawed human element present.
Playing the ambitious Evelyn Caster is Rebecca Hall, excellent in The Awakening but underused in Iron Man 3, and here onscreen more than any other character yet never developed beyond her dedication to her goal, blinkered and unsympathetic. Ruthlessly ignorant of the wider world, she entirely fails to notice when her late husband’s best friend is kidnapped by terrorists and held hostage for several years when the processing power of her pet project could have found him in captivity as easily as it located the terrorist group who poisoned Will.
That Evelyn is capable is not in question; working on the template of their AI prototype PINN (Physically Independent Neural Network), clearly intended to convey a memory of the HAL 9000 (Heuristic ALgorithmic), the programme so complex it takes a whole datacentre to house it, she pulls a mere handful of processors and sets herself up in an abandoned warehouse with minimal power, cooling or connectivity yet within days creates a state of the art processing and brain scanning facility while also acting as nursemaid to her dying husband.
The film uses worthy quotes to present its case, such as “A new type of thinking is essential if mankind is to survive and move toward higher levels,” Albert Einstein, as quoted by the New York Times in 1946, yet has other lapses which display painful scientific illiteracy; Caster’s doctor, when delivering the terminal diagnosis, does not explain that the bullet was laced with “an isotope of plutonium” but instead “an isotope called plutonium,” as if it was a novel concept he had not encountered until that moment, then fails to suggest either massive blood transfusions or chelating agents to mitigate, if not reverse, the damage.
The presentation made by the Casters may be titled “Evolve The Future,” the antithesis of the mantra of RIFT (Revolutionary Independence From Technology, unless it‘s laptops, mobile phones, panda eye mascara and hair crimpers), who declare “artificial intelligence is an unnatural abomination and a threat to humanity.”
With the camera lingering on her from her first “unobtrusive” appearance in the crowd, the very obvious face of RIFT is Bree, described by the FBI as a “radical neo-luddite,” her character given no backstory beyond an unsubstantiated anecdote about lab monkeys, highly suspect given her stated agenda. Played by Kate Mara, soon to become Sue Storm in the reboot of The Fantastic Four, here she does little other than hone her unsightly “the world owes me something” scowl she developed for American Horror Story: Murder House.
With Bree radiating resentment and given that the first action of RIFT is mass murder, audience empathy with the organisation would have been a challenge, but without any attempt made they are little more than a straw man, a plot device rather than a credible antagonist.
To articulate their arguments is essential, yet the demonstrators proffer angry slogans and righteous posturing instead of dialogue or reasoned action. Without understanding their possibly rational viewpoint, they are nothing more than terrorists who the FBI are strangely willing to form an alliance with to attack the minimal security top secret facility hidden in plain sight beside a desert township.
The implication is that a door may already have been open between the FBI and RIFT, as while other insurgents are being rounded up, Bree and her immediate cohort are spared, the agent who later acts as their liaison having just been seen dashing from sight of his colleagues with his phone in his hand, but that subplot is never developed, nor is it the only sin of omission in the script.
Demonstrating radical power to heal the sick and injured through nanotechnology, Will begins to gather a small army in the desert whom he can speak through and direct, but it is never asked by anyone whether the AI has taken them over and is using them as mindless drones or whether they are willingly sharing their bodies, volunteering them as required for the greater good.
While these alternatives should have been presented as a dilemma for the siege forces, neither option is even raised, the workers presented as weapons or cannon fodder depending on the immediate need of the scene, nor are the superpower granting nano-particles consistent in their behaviour. With thousands if not millions in the wild, it is inconceivable that they are centrally controlled, yet blocking Will’s guidance renders them inactive save for one batch in the final scene, similarly isolated from electromagnetic signals yet miraculously functioning.
With an ethereal choir heralding the title and no cast or crew listed alongside, Transcendence regards itself as serious science fiction and a major motion picture, the marketing acclaiming it as “A Wally Pfister film” though it is in fact his directorial debut, his fame coming from his cinematography role on the acclaimed films of Christopher Nolan including The Prestige, Inception and the Dark Knighttrilogy. Considering that Pfister’s background is visual, that the world he has created is drab and muted can be taken to be purposeful, colour only evident in the LEDs of the servers and the plasma screen monitors until the film enters the digital world of the simulation of Will.
Beyond those confines, the only other colour is in the encroaching vegetation of the bookending scenes set in Berkeley, California, after the technological crash and with nature having reclaimed the world, armed soldiers present on the streets to maintain order. Like the brief glimpse of San Francisco, home of the counterculture, this should be a call back to the riots of the Berkeley free speech movement in the mid sixties, a reinforcement of the theme of change, of radical thinkers fighting against the established order, though the failure to build on this idea indicates the locations may have been coincidental.
Rather than displaying an ambiguity over who may be in the right, Evelyn or RIFT, presenting the hopes and concerns of both sides equally, Pfister opts to depict both as equally wrong, selfish and short sighted, ploughing forward with unsanctioned acts without thought of the consequences or larger implications.
Filmed on anamorphic 35mm rather than digitally and with only a budget of $100, modest by modern standards, the majority of the effects are presented as simulations rather than world building, while the concept may be larger than the output of Pfister’s frequent collaborators the Nolan brothers, the execution is smaller, with a clichéd conclusion that has been repeated so many times fiction that it is embarrassing that writer Jack Paglen, previously linked to the Prometheus sequel and subsequently the recently announced and entirely redundant latest remake of Battlestar Galactica, should deploy it.
The last great films to explore the human spirit, intellect and ambition in a science fiction setting were Contact, Gattaca and The Fountain; Transcendence has aspirations to match them, yet beyond failing in the attempt to adequately address the questions, it neglects even to ask them, with even Spike Jonze’s recent Her being a more genuine and artistically realised examination on the interface between Homo sapiens and the technological singularity. Presented as an intellectual film but with none of the profundity required to justify that assumed pose, it is ironic that a film which questions whether a simulation of life can truly be the same as that life is itself an unconvincing simulacrum bogged down by soulless performances, failing to attain the necessary level of humanity, individuality or emotional insight.