As my husband and I trucked up Broadway toward our subway stop after our screening of Transcendence, he said, "The problem is he did what she wanted, but he didn't ask her about it first."
"So this is a movie about communicating better with your wife?" I asked.
"I guess?" he said.
"Did we really need IMAX for that?" I asked him. He shrugged.
That, in a nutshell, is what's wrong with Transcendence, though it doesn't touch what's right about it. (And no, it wasn't a spoiler.)
It's not a bad movie, by a long shot. In fact, it has all the trappings of a good movie: great talent (Johnny Depp, Rebecca Hall, Paul Bettany, Cillian Murphy, Morgan Freeman, Kate Mara), carefully framed scenes—Wally Pfister, the director, is best known for being Christopher Nolan's cinematographer—and an interesting plot that hits at the core of things we're interested in right now.
After all, this is the second movie in six months in major release that features a human in a close, even intimate relationship with artificial intelligences (the other was Spike Jonze's Her, winner of the Oscar for Best Original Screenplay this year).
It's also got something very strange and interesting going on beneath the surface. More on that anon.
The Thing About Sci-Fi
The thing about science fiction, good science fiction, is that you've got basically two directions in which it can go. One is to go heavy on plot, playing the story as a cautionary tale about the danger of some kind of human activity taken too far (genetic modification, technology, take your pick). Think Ender's Game. Or Metropolis. Or most classic sci-fi literature.
The other is to treat the new setting primarily as a character study, using the unfamiliar futuristic environment as a backdrop for exploring human nature or stories with enduring appeal. Star Wars primarily fits this mold, and many of Steven Spielberg's movies, and many others. Her was one of the finest examples of this: the technological advances were presented with neither comment nor alarm.
Some stories successfully straddle the divide (Star Trek is a good example, and the newer Battlestar Galactica) or reinvent it. But part of the problem with Transcendence is it tries to do both, and falls short of both marks. It's not like last year's Oblivion, which was all flash and positively no substance and, after a year and another viewing, still counts as a truly "epic" fail in my book.
Transcendence nearly gets to its target several times, but it thunks to the ground by the end. Which is sad, because Jack Paglen, the screenwriter, is a hot commodity in Hollywood right now. Last summer, there were reports that he'd be writing the Prometheus sequel; he was replaced on that project, but lately he's been attached to the (in my view, entirely unnecessary) Battlestar Galactica reboot. But the faults of this film stand out in bold relief next to Jonze's Her screenplay.
Singularity, or Transcendence?
Transcendence (and Her, too) is a movie about what some tech theorists call "the singularity"—the moment in the future when artificial intelligences will become so advanced that they will outpace human intelligence. Scientists disagree on when the singularity will occur, but many think it's coming fast, with dates ranging from 2017 to 2040.
In this film, Will Caster (Depp) and his brilliant wife Evelyn (Hall) are partners in both science and life, devoted to the development of an artificial intelligence they've named P.I.N.N. (Physically Independent Neural Network). The Casters are a study in the contrast between pure science and its commercial application. While Will loves elegant, theoretical science, Evelyn is more interested in the practical applications of their work: at a conference called "EVOLVE the FUTURE," she tells the crowd that this work has an altruistic purpose. Some day, she says, it will help clean the earth, solve health problems, eliminate poverty.
When Will gets up to speak about his vision for A.I.—some people call it the singularity, he says, but "I call it transcendence"—he's interrupted by a young man who asks him, "So you want to create a god, your own god?"
"Isn't that what man has always done?" Will asks him.
Well, that is the question. Just after Will exits the conference, chaos breaks out. He's shot by a young man who then shoots himself; simultaneously, five A.I. labs across the country are attacked. A radical Luddite terrorist group with grave concerns about how such an A.I. may destroy humanity has taken action.
Though it first seems as if Will is going to recover, he soon becomes sick, and it turns out that the bullet that just grazed him was poisonous, loaded with radiation that will kill him within a month. Evelyn, along with their friend and fellow scientist Max (Bettany), is distraught, but resigned. And yet, as Will's health declines, Evelyn starts to form a plan. What if they could upload Will's consciousness into P.I.N.N.?
They manage to do so, just before Will dies. And it works. Will's consciousness—with Will's memories, speech patterns, and proclivities—comes online and begins working and communicating with Evelyn (in a scene reminiscent of Samantha's camera-as-eye in Her, Will can't see Evelyn till she positions the camera properly). He reorders his consciousness a bit to make it cleaner, creates a visual representation of himself, connects to the Internet, and begins to expand. He asks Evelyn to build a vast data center so he can grow more powerful. He figures out how to heal humans from serious illnesses, and how to network them. And over the course of years, he grows more vast, with Evelyn's help.
But Max has been worried from the start that this is not Will at all, but something more sinister, something that will take over the world. He's not the only one.
Like Her, Transcendence's core is a love story that gets complicated when one of the partners becomes vastly intelligent, a mind that transcends space and time.
But here's what Her did well: it gave us scenes between the two partners that showed us the development and depth of this love—didn't just show us, but made us feel it. Transcendence, though a character piece, is also preoccupied with its singularity plot, trying to explore the negative and positive potential of this sort of development.
As a result, it moves far too fast, skimping on both character and plot. It tells us that Evelyn and Will have a vital connection, but doesn't really make us feel it. It tells us to be worried about the singularity, and tells us there might be benefits, but without giving us enough time to catch our breath and sink into the feeling. And by the end, when it effectively pulls the rug out, it leaves us scratching our heads about what we were supposed to be feeling in the first place. Sure, it's great when characters are complicated and multi-dimensional, but all those colorful sparkles a prism flings around a room get blurry and flat when you whirl it around too fast.
Another, more surprising problem, given Pfister's bona fides as a cinematographer, was the use of IMAX. If I'm seated in front of an enormous screen, you've got my attention, and I am expecting something visually stunning. Transcendence delivered, but only occasionally. In fact, I thought at least once that I might like this movie better if I was watching it on a smaller screen—something I've never thought before. It's visually excellent, but it doesn't merit the majesty of IMAX, and it seems dangerous to raise an audience's expectations (and ticket prices) without delivering. (It may do well on DVD.)
All that to say that among the field of directorial debuts, Transcendence is better than the average. But it doesn't really give you much to think about with respect to human love or to the dangers of technology.
An (Inadvertent?) Parable
But, but. I couldn't shake the feeling there was something else going on. I don't know a blessed thing about Jack Paglen or Wally Pfister's religious beliefs, and I'm definitely not the kind of critic who sees a Christ figure around every corner.
But if Paglen and Pfister weren't intentionally layering in a narrative structure ripped straight from the Bible, they certainly did so unconsciously.
(There might be some spoilers ahead, so if you plan to see the film, you may want to stop now or jump down to the Caveat Spectator, and then come back later.)
We begin with a couple who are busy about the work of creation driven by both the pure joy of creating and by a desire to heal the world's ills and cause human flourishing. But violence is done to one of them because of this, and he dies. He becomes—as the man in the audience says to Will—a sort of god, a transcendent being who can heal humans and bring about harmony, who becomes part of creation, all because of his love for his wife, an embodied being who is working with him.
Yet that transcendent being is persecuted and despised by those it wants to save—even those who purportedly loved it at one time. Eventually, even the person closes to him comes to distrust him ("why did you lose faith in me? Why didn't you believe in me?"). The only way to save her, and save the world, is to return to earth, to become embodied once more. But then, he must sacrifice himself. And he leaves behind a still-broken world, though one with the potential for regeneration.
And then there's the last bit of the movie, in which we return to a garden where things still bloom, where life still exists. That garden, we're told, was created "for the same reason he did everything—so that they could be together."
Obviously, this isn't a theologically perfect analogy in any way. But even if it's mixing the lines between creation and created, Trinity and man, death and rebirth, it's certainly following some familiar plot lines that Christians can recognize. Where it fails as plot and character sketch, Transcendence becomes weirdly successful as a sort of cockeyed analogy for the gospel and the painful, tragic, violent beauty of the Incarnation and Christ's crucifixion.
Perhaps it makes sense this is being released on Good Friday.
All that aside, Transcendence is yet another movie that shows how important our bodies are to our full humanity, and as our computers and phones and watches and glasses get smarter, and as we get more and more removed from one another, that seems to be something we care about. (Brett McCracken wrote about this beautifully when he reviewed Her for us.) Lower your expectations if they're raised by the IMAX screen, don't expect an epic warning plot or a careful humanist character sketch, and you'll be just fine.
Transcendence is rated PG-13 for sci-fi action and violence, some bloody images, brief strong language and sensuality, but it's one of the "cleanest" PG-13 films I've seen in a long time, suitable for most teenagers and adults. The only "strong language" I caught was a solitary euphemism for human excrement. There is certainly violence—mostly people getting shot—but nothing gratuitous. There are some very brief scenes that imply sex between married people in which we see nothing. And there are intimations of vast impending doom that could be scary, but nothing that should evoke nightmares.