One of the things that irked me about Spike Jonze’s Her was its failure to consider any number of consequences generated by its eerily close-to-reality science fiction premise. By contrast, Transcendence, which shares a key narrative element with Her—its protagonist’s beloved is an omnipresent immaterial being who exists solely via the supernatural realm known as the Internet—bends over backward to consider all sorts of grandiose consequences of living in a world where such love is possible. The problem is that consider is all Transcendence does. The film, written by Jack Paglen, checks off a lot of big ideas that we should probably all be thinking about, but is ultimately just as soft-headed as Her, while bearing little of that film’s distinctions. Her sacrificed coherence in favour of some resonant knowingness about the nature of love and possession. Transcendence sacrifices coherence for the veneer of intellectual and/or spiritual heft—and for a nonsensical third act full of big-ass explosions and sundry special effects.
The portentously named Dr. Will Caster (Johnny Deep), a genius in the realm of artificial intelligence, gets shot by radical anti-AI activists. At first it seems he’s going to be okay, but then a doctor with an astonishingly poor bedside manner informs him that the bullet was laced with isotopes and he’s going to die from radiation poisoning in a matter of weeks. A devastatingly brief window of time, but just enough time for Evelyn (Rebecca Hall), Will’s partner in love and science, to encode Will’s memories, ideas, emotions—in short, his consciousness—and upload the whole package into PINN, or Physically Independent Neural Network, the Casters’ revolutionary AI program. So Will’s flesh perishes, but his mind, or some facsimile, lives on in the cloud. He’s everywhere, all the time, and, it seems, all-powerful. He makes a bunch of money fast, and sets up Evelyn with an entire desert town, and, apparently, all its inhabitants, to continue their research, which, needless to say, has the capacity to take over the world!
Evelyn is our Dr. Frankenstein, her hubris driven equally by grief and scientific vision, her fundamental innocence underlined by the fact that she wears Keds with every outfit. Will is her disembodied monster, HAL 9000 with a handsome synthetic visage, a novel spin on the abusive, controlling spouse, Big Brother as bad husband. There are other characters to complicate and crowd Transcendence: a soundly sceptical neurobiologist pal (Paul Bettany) who conspicuously wears a cross around his neck, a wise old former colleague (Morgan Freeman), and a fed (Cillian Murphy) who keeps a watchful eye on the Casters’ mad science, which could one day prove useful to the Department of Defence.
The first hour is very intriguing, if poorly paced—so many scenes are a few lines too long, and there’s a great deal of padding—but then the script devolves into ungovernable plottiness. First-time director Wally Pfister, already famous as Christopher Nolan’s regular cinematographer, opts to emphasize spectacle, whether it be clouds of infectious nano-dirt reaching up out of the earth or a diamond-like drop of dew sliding off a sunflower in slow-motion, the former being an empty conceit designed solely to look freaky and thrilling, the latter being an empty stab at profundity.