In Transcendence, Evelyn Caster (Rebecca Hall) is introduced as the classic mad scientist, someone who moves forward with experimental technology without stopping to consider the consequences. Of course, she has a good reason to do so: love. Her husband, the brilliant scientist Will Caster (Johnny Depp), was making breakthroughs in the field of self-aware artificial intelligence when an anti-A.I. group, Revolutionary Independence from Technology (R.I.F.T.), assassinates him with radioactive poisoning. Since it’s such a villainously slow death, Evelyn has enough time to copy his brain activity and upload his “consciousness” into the A.I. supercomputer he created. Friend and fellow scientist Max (Paul Bettany) has reservations about copying Will’s consciousness and hooking it up to the world’s network of computers, but Evelyn considers it a sound scientific plan, since a digital husband is better than no husband at all.
Similarly, on paper, Transcendence seems like it should be good idea. It’s an original sci-fi concept, not based on a pre-existing franchise property. Wally Pfister, longtime director of photography for Christopher Nolan, chose it as his directorial debut. (In one of the wan bonus features, someone calls Pfister a veteran with the passion and energy of a first-timer.) The cast also features members of the Christopher Nolan Repertory Company, including Morgan Freeman and Cillian Murphy. With all of these factors in place, it wouldn’t seem unreasonable to expect a movie on the level of Nolan’s Inception. But, like Dr. Caster’s experiments, Transcendence is much smarter in theory than it is in practice.
Not that the movie should be blamed for trying. Many recent films have focused on Transcendence‘s two main themes: the practical applications of self-aware artificial intelligence, and humanity’s relationship to it. Just a few months before the film’s release, for example, Spike Jonze‘s Her covered similar ground. But while Her focused in an emotional, one-on-one human interaction, Transcendence‘s view is more macro, centered on the power of A.I. that has access to the world’s accumulated knowledge in a plugged-in society. Or was it more of a political view, telling the story of the struggle between the people who barrel forward with new technology too quickly versus the people who rally against it entirely? Or is it about whether or not humans can form a romantic relationship with A.I. created from the exact neural pathways of someone they once loved? And, if scientists can create A.I. from the exact neural pathways of a living human, what makes that A.I. different from the original? In short: What makes us human, and can it be copied or created?
These are big questions, and Transcendence tries to tackle all of them without ever really getting a bead on any of them. It raises questions that go unanswered, or introduces ideas then doesn’t follow through with them. Some subjects get a shorter shrift than others: Evelyn’s relationship with the A.I. Will gets plenty of attention, but R.I.F.T., which is set up in the beginning to be the main antagonist, is largely ignored, but not dropped entirely. The organization pops in and out of the story right when it makes the least amount of narrative sense, then gets absorbed with a procedural F.B.I. subplot that also feels half-formed. As a result, R.I.F.T. never gets to fully give its anti-A.I. argument, making the movie feel one-sided.
Instead of fleshing out these ideas and taking them to their logical conclusion, Transcendence continues to introduce more concepts that get more and more far-fetched. Eventually, it gets into the realms of nanotechnology and mind control. The core questions of the movie just get muddied in all of these extraneous ideas. One can’t help but wonder if there was a better version of Transcendence in there, if all of the extraneous side-plots and more far-fetched elements were stripped away, focusing just on the pro-A.I. Evelyn, the more reserved Max, and Will as the consequence of their choices (and jettisoning R.I.F.T. and the F.B.I. altogether). There are enough interesting ideas to chew on with just these three points of view, after all, and the movie would have had more room to explore them more fully.
Instead, the movie doesn’t have enough time to devote to every point of view contained within it, and the few bonus features included in the Blu-ray don’t give any additional insight. There’s no commentary track; instead, there is a series of short featurettes that are little more than trailers or ads that play before the movie in theaters. (A number of them even end with title cards that say “coming April 18”.) The titles suggest that they focus on different aspects of the film , but many of them use the same interview and movie clips. A couple of them have short interviews with scientists explaining how the movie is sort of loosely based on real science, and how “transcendence” might not be that far off. But, similar to the rest of the film, these ideas are never fully explored, and are therefore pretty unsatisfying.