Transcendence is about how Johnny Depp’s character tries to destroy the world with technology. Or maybe it’s about how he tries to save it. Even at the end, the point’s debatable and (literally) muddy, though by then, the planet’s been thoroughly Revolution‘ed, and people are bartering for goods and littering the sidewalk with their now useless smartphones — technology has lost, and the trans-humanists are largely out of luck.
Before flashing back five years to reveal how everyone ended up in this situation, Transcendence opens with Max Waters (Paul Bettany) walking past store owners who are propping doors open with scrapped keyboards in a dystopian Berkeley, Calif., while he muses about how the internet was supposed to bring everyone closer, but that the world actually feels smaller without it. Transcendence is a mostly silly movie about some very big ideas, but it does feel unexpectedly resonant in how actively conflicted it is about how technology is shaping humanity, and that it can’t be controlled, just accepted or rejected wholesale.
In Transcendence, which is the directorial debut of cinematographer and frequent Christopher Nolan collaborator Wally Pfister, Depp plays Will Caster, one of the leading minds in the scientific race toward creating artificial intelligence. He’s married to the equally brilliant Evelyn (Rebecca Hall), and the two specialize in neural engineering — until Will is shot by a member of a Neo-Luddite terrorist group led by Bree (Kate Mara) called RIFT, part of a coordinated attack on AI researchers around the country.
Dying from radiation poisoning, Will allows Evelyn and their friend Max to attempt to upload his consciousness to a computer using new data from a colleague who was killed. In an abandoned school gymnasium, he gets his synapses scanned and reads words to a camera, and what results, as he passes, is a seemingly sentient copy of the dead man’s mind asking for more power and to be put online. Evelyn’s overjoyed, but Max has doubts as to whether what they’ve created is actually Will or something more ominous.
Transcendence is filled with the expected pseudoscientific hand waving and, less forgivably, plenty of mentioning of the philosophical implications of the singularity without actual discussion of them, but it does manage to demonstrate that Max is missing the point. A Will no longer bound by physical constraints isn’t any more human than a malicious AI, and, as he expands his empire, his actions, bad or good, are no longer concerned with such petty things as, say, concepts of individual selfhood. With impossible resources at his disposal, Will is able to conceive of inventions he wouldn’t have been able to when he was alive, but is also no longer able to recall what being alive was like. Evelyn is his tie to his past life, but even she struggles to reconcile the man she loved with the machine, especially when that machine keeps doing things reminiscent of much grimmer sci-fi movies.
In an age of technological marvels and menaces, with the promise of self-driving cars and no privacy, there’s no faulting Transcendence’s ambivalence about the future. We don’t trust Facebook, so why would we have an easier time placing faith in a super-intelligent post-human who acts as he pleases, with no easy way to make him stop should that be needed? The idea of the singularity is one in which technology surpasses humanity’s ability to control or keep up with it, a speculative cliff off of which we may someday jump. Transcendence just skims the surface of its concept, tying it to a love story that not even Depp can make interesting, especially confined to a screen for much of the movie. But it embodies some relevant doubts about where humanity is headed, and about whether the only other option is to blow everything back several centuries and start over.