Transcendence (2014) Directed by Wally Pfister. Starring: Johnny Depp, Rebecca Hall, Morgan Freeman. IMDB says: “As Dr. Will Caster works toward his goal of creating an omniscient, sentient machine, a radical anti-technology organization fights to prevent him from establishing a world where computers can transcend the abilities of the human brain.”
A prominent pillar of any good sci-fi flick has always been the general theme of technology vs. humanity. As technological advances happen more rapidly with each passing year, the artistic opportunities to explore those competitions between man and machine becomes both more present and more difficult to capture with a sense of reality. The new film Transcendence doesn’t come to the table with any particularly innovative ideas for science fiction but does a good job updating the playing field with a modern feeling.
In the movie, Jonny Depp plays Will Castor, a brilliant scientist that is at the forefront of artificial intelligence development. His wife Evelyn (Rebecca Hall) and close friend (Paul Bettany) work with him on advancing research on human conscience. The research brings with it a lot of moral issues for many that worry the ability to replicate human conscience with technology could result in man playing ‘God’ but Castor argues that the human race has always done so. As quickly as we are introduced to these new technologic possibilities, we also come face to face with terrorists that seek to destroy the progress. Will is confronted by one of these radicals and subsequently shot. Castor appears to survive the gunshot initially but it is soon discovered that his life expectancy has been diminished to only a few weeks. He chooses to spend his final days with Evelyn but she becomes furiously motivated to complete the work and attempt to save part of the man she loves. After Will’s death, the experiment works…or does it? It’s difficult to know for sure if Will is the same person and if his motivations are pure or if Evelyn is too blinded by her devotion to see something more sinister happening.
I think Transcendence’s major appeal comes from its feeling of reality. Unlike a lot of science fiction film where the “science” portion of the film is explained away using buzzwords and flat out made-up shit, Transcendence seems to take its time explaining the nature of the science. I’m not saying everything here is very accurate (at one point, Hall’s character says something like “I’ve tried everything…cryptography..coding…nothing is working.” If you didn’t know, that sentence does not make any sense…at all. But it is only one of two cringe-worthy moments of the film which is actually pretty solid for a sci-fi film) but the thought processes and applications in the film do feel grounded in possibility. Unfortunately, the movie takes its time with a lot of other narrative elements as well. It isn’t exactly boring, especially considering that almost every scene feels like it’s leading to a really ugly conclusion, but it can be a laborious watch at times.
Thankfully, there is just enough thought-provoking ideas at play in the film to keep you invested in the outcome. Yes – man vs. machine, human nature vs technology is a moral dilemma as old as time, but the faster our science approaches once unattainable feats the more we are forced to confront the ideas touched upon in the movie. Does progressing medical technology allow our species to help the world heal the sick or is it too powerful for us to take into our own hands? Is technology the next driving force in evolution or will it bring the destruction of our humanity? There are a lot of questions to ponder in Transcendence, and while the movie won’t explicitly answer them for you, it will say that no matter what the change, people will always be afraid of something new.