Despite the ubiquity with which it was panned, we decided to watch Transcendence (2014) anyway. I am not going to pan the film, but I would recommend it to only to a niche audience.
Wally Pfister directed Transcendence was pitched as a near kin to Inception (2010). And Christopher Nolan’s name is attached to both; he is executive producer of Transcendence and Writer/Director of the other. Their likeness will be found in the question of whether you believe a particular premise to be real or not. Which point-of-view is reliable, let alone right. What the films do not share is Inception’s action sequences and dazzling effects. I’m not trying to spoil the film, but rather rescue it from expectations. And the film could use some help at reception.
An activist organization is trying to thwart the advancement of Artificial Intelligent (A.I.), believing that technology has crossed ethical boundaries and must be stopped. One of their targets, Dr. Will Caster (Johnny Depp) is fatally wounded and between his research and other top scientist’s work, his wife Dr. Evelyn Caster (Rebecca Hall) and best friend Dr. Max Waters (Paul Bettany) are able to preserve his consciousness by uploading his brain’s neural engineering. A big question is whether it worked or is PINN (the A.I. Caster designed) hiding behind Caster’s façade (avatar). Another is: can the ensuing god-complex be stopped—and should it.
The cast is an impressive one, but the wow factor is suppressed by script, direction, and editing. The opening series of cross-cuts are inelegant. The science and philosophy in visual dialog and vocal are heavy* and either depends upon a savvy viewer, or an ignorant one. Transcendence is a film about ideas and, thus, is one for conversation afterward. Too, the film does choose a clearly delineated side to the kind of moral implications with which it wrestles.
Technology in the form of A.I. is both promising and perilous. What boundaries should this technology observe? Can and should it be regulated? Who can we trust to make those moral and legislative decisions?
Finding the hero in the film is part of its psychological playground. Paul Bettany as Max is our way in and through the film. He holds the interest of both the human and the machine; loves both the Casters and respects the fears of the rest. He is also only interested in intervening at what is perceived as the most fraught moment, suggesting he reacts rather than function as a proactive participant. And in the end, we are left to judge his actions over any other institution represented: science, marriage, government, activists. Because he is our representative, the viewer demands a less conflicted resolution—because we are sheepish that way.
If the film is only ever a love story between the Casters, one desperate to preserve her husband, the other only wanting to spend what time he can with her and see to her needs, it is the one story arch that finds clarity (especially if you are paying good attention to the framing sequences). The preservation of the loving union at its idyllic is of and returned to the garden. The sunflower is revived and can once again turn its face toward the sun, its creator (alluding to the Greek myth here).
The conversation of the creator and created is unavoidable in Transcendence. There is a question of where any relevant distinctions can be found between the created and its creator. Is PINN not somehow Will** even before the upload? And what does Evelyn contribute to the experiment? (more on that in a moment.) The created only live as long as the creator is connected (and vice versa); at least in some sequences anyway. The conversation neatly nestles into the soul vs. intelligence dilemma. Does the intelligence invent the concept of the soul, naming its self-consciousness thus? How does human emotion figure in—an equally rational part of us? Max argues that where emotion can handle the “illogical conflicts” like ‘loving someone, yet hating the things they’ve done.’ He observes that the “machine can’t reconcile that.”
There is a concern in the narrative that Evelyn has emotionally contaminated the experiment somehow. She is the only figure connected with nature (gardening) and has the vision to change the world with the technology they are advancing. It is a subject of amusement and horror in the film that where she would change things for the greater good, while her husband only wants to figure out how the transcendent A.I. could/would work. I think the end points to a conflation of the two creators, male/female, Will/Evelyn. The two of whom we must kill, yet must also preserve in a story, in a garden. And yet, I am still nettled by the suggestion of her failure to remain indifferent makes her the compromised scientist and an inferior goddess. Additionally, his vulnerability to her desires makes him the failure as well. Transcendence is the story of The Fall: the edenic being the internet, the apple being A.I. and its subsequent technological advancements and/or you could read eden as the garden of their shared domestic space, and technology the intruding and fatal apple.
Transcendence wrestles with the conflict of mankind and technology, of our fears of how technology could aide us, but might supplant us. But the tension in the film relies on our cultural fear of a lack of privacy and intrusion upon individuality. It moves to cultivate a fear of the internet and the efficiency of its collaborative nature; a fear of the collective conscious; and a fear of the avatar and the anonymity of its user.
The end suggestion is that we would rather embrace a stunted growth, a blissful ignorance even if it means suffering. Those who reach too far, too quickly are punished. Their regulators are an interesting brew of governmental entity and grassroots activism.
The leader of the activist-terrorists is not against technology. No one in the film is saying this: even Evelyn likes to unplug and spend time in her garden, etc. Will decides to forgo lab work to spend quality time with his wife. The terrorist group encapsulates its manifesto in the length of a tweet. It uses cars, computers, phones, and weaponry to carry out its efforts; the difference, they cite, is the use of technology as aide, not attempting to supplant humanity. The government nurtures scientific inquiry, but it also wants to monitor it in the paternalistic way they do.
The trick in the film is to decide who is right, the government and activist who care for public interests, or those like the Casters who are protecting private interests. The answer is likely found in the love story—a marriage, which is both of public and private interest to succeed; and the only thing to transcend the human and the technological interferences. Of course, I come to this conclusion with some thought and some indecision.
I was troubled by the framing narrative of the future where the Caster’s neighborhood shows children playing out of doors, people on bicycles, a warm summery glow, yet there is a military presence, and a lack of resources (the sign on the corner market door announcing no eggs or milk). Before they enact a “necessary” catastrophic event, the understanding is they will be met with an apocalyptic landscape. The only interruption or cease/desist to the increasingly rapid advancement of scientific technology is an apocalypse. The only way to stop the encroaching power and its technological over-reach of humanity is to annihilate it. Technology has to be returned to the state of an idea, a utopic vision; for its promises to be actualized would be perilous.
Plenty hinges on a particular declaration near the end of the film, because the question of whether tech has any vision to be realized at all is in the balance. It is the not dissimilar to the debate regarding the humanity of corporations. There is a human consciousness generating an agenda at some point in the machine’s creation. We know that humans demonstrate a failure to self-regulate, and certainly able to perform acts without considerations for whom it harms. Even good intentions can wreak havoc. However, is it enough to get rid of the human behind the machine, if the machine has taken off without its inability to compute moral implication properly? And we’re back to figuring out who defines “propriety.”
The collaboration for the advancement of science witnessed in the film may be improper, while collaboration for the advancement of humanity is. But then we have to make the distinction between when the advancement of science is not in the interest of advancing humanity; or in the language of the film, when the “intelligence” becomes artificial and loses its “soul.” This is where the criticism of Dr. Max Waters’ seeming passivity comes into play. Interestingly enough: he becomes subject to the persuasive desires of two women. He gets yelled at a lot. The males are much more sympathetic to each other’s plights and interact in softer tones.
A lovely enough tension, it is Caster (science/tech/boundary-pushing) who appeals to his heart, and the other who must appeal to his reason. A question is whether he is able to reconcile the two successfully. The baiting and switching of sympathies between the competing interests muddled any easy conclusions.
I’m not one who thinks a film should generate an easy conclusion, or neatly bow every question it raises. However, I am flustered by Transcendence’s attempts to be cagey and struggle to pinpoint the lack of coherence in the film. I can identify a mediocrity in the crafting of the film, and chafe at anti-fem suggestions, but my best guess at the pivotal flaw is the attempt at being too clever in trying to settle on a singular identity of the transcendent technology/intelligence—and maybe this failure is the point of the film: our desire to create a singular from a plural. I guess the question now, is how hard did I work to create coherence where there is likely too little to be had in the film. That “love is what transcends” message bleeds into nothing but the Casters and their friendships. Their love leads to nothing but a negative impact on the world when it meets with regulatory interference. Hmmm…***
Of note: Transcendence is Wally Pfister’s debut as director. He is otherwise known for his work as director of photography. I would like to also acknowledge that David Rosenbloom has a hit-or-miss filmography as editor.
*By heavy, I mean weighted closed to plodding, not heavy in the heft of the delivery Matthew McConaughey’s character manages in True Detective (2014).
**Note the names…how literary of the writer…
***now to sort out whether this message applies to “love between two people,” their partnership or “marriage” of the heteronormative sort.
Transcendence (2014). Director Wally Pfister; Writer Jack Paglen’ Editor David Rosenbloom; Music by Mychael Danna; Cinematography Jess Hall; Executive Producers: Dan Mintz, Christopher Nolan & Emma Thomas; Producers: Kate Cohen, Broderick Johnson, Andrew A. Kosove; Annie Marter, Marisa Polvino; Aaron Ryder & David Valdes. Starring: Johnny Depp (Will Caster), Rebecca Hall (Evelyn Caster); Paul Bettany (Max Waters); Cillian Murphy (Agent Buchanan); Kate Mara (Bree) & Morgan Freeman (Joseph Tagger).
PG-13 for sci-fi action and violence, some bloody images, brief strong language and sensuality. Running time 119 minutes.