Transcendance is worth watching but ultimately disappointing.
The story tracks those left behind in the wake of a terrorist attack on every advanced AI facility in the country, except one. The lead scientist at that facility, Will Caster, is killed in a slower, more subtle way, one that leaves his wife and friend with time enough to use an untested method to upload his mind and memories into the system. The resulting personality alienates the friend but persuades the wife, Evelyn, also a scientist, that he is who he appears to be. The plot develops from there and from the fact that the terrorists are now looking for the two of them and for the circuit boards they’d stolen from the lab. “Will” decides to use his advanced intelligence and unlimited, Internet-enabled knowledge to remake the world. (First, he makes a killing in the stock market and finances a private hideaway where Ev can run his corporation. Then, he secretly develops the cure for every disease. After that, he uses access to this cure to control a private army.)
This is, at its base, a simple science-fiction movie without a lot that could appeal to non-fans of the genre. There’s no standard non-SF plot that might engage viewers in a non-genre way. There’s not much action, not much in the way of character development except in their occupational roles (scientists, terrorists, cops), not much in the way of special effects. There’s no crime to be solved, none of the characters’ lives is in direct danger, and the love interest is subordinated to the SF plot.
And the movie is entirely devoted to plot. There’s none of the rumination, on the technology, on humanity, or on the characters and their dilemmas, that you might find in a novel, which has more room for dwelling on such things. So even as science fiction, it’s not quite as fleshed-out as it should be, especially at the end, and it doesn’t take even the SF elements past the basics, as if the filmmakers were marveling over ideas that were entirely new to them but in fact have been evolving nuances over decades. The focus is primarily on the discoveries confronted by Ev and her friend Max as they separately realize what the AI is doing. (As with Her, apparently everybody but me bought the idea that the AI is Will’s actual personality, and not simply using him as a mask.)
There’s a basic weirdness to Transcendance, as might befit a film by Wally Pfister, and one that stars Johnny Depp. But the movie needed, I think, either to embrace this weirdness fully, or normalize it, and it does neither. There’s nothing extraordinary about the visuals, and Johnny Depp as Will plays it totally straight. And the story leaves threads hanging loose in a way that raises questions that seem out of proportion to the kind of film it is. Does Evelyn ever realize just how bizarre her own behavior has become? What kind of person is the Casters’ friend Max? Why have the terrorists chosen to link what’s in essence the contents of the Unabomber Manifesto with opposition to this particular project? What does the US government do when it finds out the only remaining AI project in existence has been shut down by the scientists who refused to hand it over to them? We never find out. Instead, we get a really interesting cast—Rebecca Hall, Paul Bettany, Cillian Murphy, and Morgan Freemen–merely going through the motions of a script that gives them nothing to do.
As I hinted above, Transcendance has some thematic affiliation to Her. Both films are about an advanced artificial intelligence that has the ability to, in one way or another, take over a person’s life. The assumption that Samantha, the AI in Her, would have an almost godlike intelligence, really appears plausible only in light of the assumptions highlighted by Transcendance, which the viewer naturally imports into Her, in spite of their never being mentioned specifically. We’re meant to recognize that everyone knows about the idea of the Singularity, when the machines will have become smarter than we are. Transcendance calls these assumptions out explicitly, but is pretty much as certain as Her that they’re the only possible way to think about AI: to create an AI is to create a god. Seen in that light, Her has a happy ending because its main characters ultimately embrace life without false, though convenient, gods. And Transcendance has a happy ending (kind of) because its god isn’t a god at all, but a person, and possibly not even a human, but something that only mimics one. (Actually, at the end of both movies, the regular people are learning again to live in the unplugged world.) I wonder now whether I reacted as negatively to Her as I did because Transcendance is what I’d imagined in its place. The situation simply doesn’t work if the genders are reversed. The charming personal assistant turns into the soul of This House Possessed. Similarly, in Transcendance, marital boredom becomes lèse majesté, if not blasphemy. Her is the better movie because it doesn’t come down hard on the broader implications—but hints at them—and sticks to the sweet romantic story of the schlemiel. But Transcendance is, possibly, the more interesting one, because it does.