April 18, 2014 by Sankha Wanigasekara
“Transcendence,” Wally Pfister’s solid directorial debut, stars Johnny Depp, Rebecca Hall, Paul Bettany and Morgan Freeman. “Transcendence” depicts Depp’s Will Caster as an aficionado in the field of artificial intelligence, striving to create a machine that is enlightened with all the knowledge ever known to mankind, while possessing the added dimension of human sentience and emotions. Naturally, this lands him in hot water with activists (or rather, terrorists) who claim his endeavors will endanger the very existence of mankind. A nationwide, well-orchestrated murder spree led by a terrorist cell then targets renowned AI scientists, including Caster. In an effort to preserve his mind, Caster’s wife, Evelyn (Hall), and his friend Max (Bettany) attempt to upload his consciousness to the AI program they had designed, not knowing the potentially disastrous consequences this could have.
The film made a good impression right from the beginning, starting with a short sequence, then traveled back in time five years. Though most characters’ fates were hinted at through the opening shot, the movie maintained an element of suspense when spelling out the plot’s details. The film was stylistically slick as well, which was not surprising due to the fact that the director is Christopher Nolan’s go-to director of photography. The murder spree described earlier was done with economic precision, depicting the true horrors of such an event with only a few minutes of screen time.
The middle chunk of the movie had me bothered a bit, primarily due to a time shift forward of two years. This transition seemed too abrupt, as it did not really account for society’s extreme technological advances. Within 24 months, it seemed like society had advanced a few millennia. Though it seemed farfetched to jump from a basically prehistoric age to a Skynet-like world, this was perhaps necessary in showing the extreme repercussions of molding a superficial realm—it is a sci-fi movie after all.
Pfister’s movie packs in a considerable amount of dense, intellectual arguments throughout its proceedings. Technology is the heart of the discussion, as the plot exposes the benefits that a sentient supercomputer could bring to the world, as well as the potential harm that could occur if the power of an artificially intelligent being exceeded that of our own. The beauty of this is that each side has valid arguments, so the film doesn’t define a clear hero or villain. Because its central conflict is not presented in black and white, the film tugs at its viewers’ consciences, creating a personal dilemma in the choice between good and evil.
On another level, the movie really illuminates how self-destructive humans can be, despite noble intentions. Caster draws attention to the irony of an anti-technology group that assassinates fellow humans in order to “preserve” humanity. While the extremists soil their own cause, the science community seems to do the same, when an assembly of erudite scholars attempts to emulate the human mind on a computer system despite the fact that they don’t fully understand its functioning. While most of the debates are regurgitated from existing conversations, it is exquisite to see those hypothetical sci-fi scenarios being realized visually on the screen. The film successfully embedded a human story within a technological framework, and to me the film excels because of that.
The relationship between Caster and Evelyn makes this a heartfelt and poignant story, all thanks to the chemistry between Depp and Hall. Depp’s AI mannerisms were believable and convincing, despite the fact that mankind has yet to see such an innovation in our time. Hall exhibits a full range of emotions in this picture, and it is devastating to see her hold on to a false sense of reality through this virtual mechanism.
The story begins with an act of love, where Evelyn decides to preserve her husband in a world of ones and zeroes, and it ends with a similar act that is truly potent. There was scope for the film to end with a massive, Michael Bay-style apocalyptic ending, but the creative team made the right choice by going with a more subdued finale that let the humanity of the plot triumph in the end.