Much like its digitized main character, Transcendence has a cold, distant personality that might understand how humans act but can’t comprehend how they feel. It’s not too difficult to explore the dangers of a man being consumed by technology. That story goes all the way back to the tale of Icarus. It may feel relevant due to our investment in the Internet and the distance we create every day by putting our lives online rather than forging real personal connections, but Wally Pfister‘s directorial debut sticks to a path where other films have gone before. The movie still asks worthwhile questions, but they’re never elevated beyond dorm-room level philosophy. Additionally, these questions overshadow the characters, who are reduced to pieces of a conversation we’ve already had before.
Dr. Will Caster (Johnny Depp), his wife Evelyn (Rebecca Hall), and their friend Max Waters (Paul Bettany) are all at the forefront of artificial intelligence research. Although Max is slightly more cautious about the ramifications of A.I., they all believe it has the power to transform the world for good. A terrorist group known as “R.I.F.T.” believes it diminishes our humanity, and they stage an attack on computer labs as well as shooting Will with a radioactive bullet (yes, I am aware of how silly a “radioactive bullet” sounds). With Will slowly dying, Evelyn and Max decide to save his consciousness by uploading it to a computer. Although the procedure works, the reborn Will becomes hungry to expand his power by connecting to the Internet, gathering all data, and then moving into nanotechnology. Eventually, an attempt to save a good man’s life and possibly help the world becomes a serious threat.
It’s a familiar story, and there’s nothing necessarily wrong with that. Transcendence has the admirable ambition to take this age-old tale and re-appropriate it for our present-day concerns, although it’s kind of the same issue and premise explored by The Lawnmower Man, which came out 22 years ago. “People fear what they don’t understand,” says Will even though we understand this line because it’s been said by countless characters in countless works of literature, film, TV shows, etc. Transcendence isn’t finding a new angle as much as it’s looking through an old prism. It just has fancier visual effects and beautiful cinematography (the latter isn’t much of a surprise since Pfister is an Oscar-winning director of photography).
It’s not that the questions raised by Transcendence aren’t worthwhile. “What are the limits of human knowledge?”; “Is our humanity contained in our doubt?”; “Is our fundamental need to improve and advance at odds with what’s good for society?” But these are all rudimentary questions and they’re further diminished because they’re not particularly novel. They may be evergreen, but in Pfister’s film, they don’t feel fresh.
These questions also carry too much of the narrative burden because they don’t have any emotional investment. Questions about the nature of humanity should have some humanity. We should care about how they affect real people with real emotions rather than broad characters who raise these questions but lack a genuine investment in the answer. Evelyn has created a Frankenstein’s Monster (in the sense of the book, not the movie), but the relationship feels hollow because not only do Depp and Hall lack chemistry, but also we hardly know them before Will gets shot and uploaded. Their romance is programmed into the script. They love each other because the script tells us they love each other. Whether or not we feel their love is apparently irrelevant.
The occasional glimmers of emotion—a rare joke, a disturbing reveal—aren’t enough to push past the movie’s robotic, sterile demeanor. The film’s personality doesn’t lie with the ambivalent Max or the increasingly doubtful Evelyn. Instead, Transcendence sympathizes with the digital Will Caster—a program that thinks it can understand human emotion by monitoring heart-rates and pupil dilation. The story may be fascinated with Will’s mind, but when it comes to a compelling narrative and worthwhile relationships, Transcendence is as lifeless as his body.