“Maybe it was all inevitable,” muses Max (Paul Bettany) in voiceover as you watch him wander through the desolate streets of Berkeley, CA. “A unavoidable collision between mankind and technology.” Maybe. Stepping past occasional soldiers as well as broken cell phones and laptops (pointed out by close up shots), Max arrives at last in a suburban backyard garden, now abandoned. Here he crouches to gaze on a pair of sunflowers, blooming despite all.
Of course these sunflowers mean something special, representing to Max two people who were, as he puts it, “dedicated to what they loved.” As this awfully sentimental start to Transcendence intimates, that “what” would be each other, but also, you come to learn over the next couple of hours, to ideals framed by their research in artificial intelligence. Dr. Will Caster (Johnny Depp) and his wife Evelyn (Rebecca Hall) are introduced in Max’s flashback, “five years earlier”, when they are building an AI called PINN (Physically Independent Neural Network). In these set-up scenes, the significantly named Ev and Will appear to be optimistic and devoted to one another, as well as to their prelapsarian garden, a quaint backyard where they grow flowers and listen to LPs on a turntable.
When they’re not cozy at home, Ev and Will are pursuing the grand promise of PINN, pitching its self-awareness and capacity to “overcome the limits of biology” to potential donors in a vast hall. Seeking private funding (it’s not clear how corporate this might or must be), Will and Ev reject any government influence, until crisis strikes, in the form of an attack by rebels who call themselves RIFT, led by the dour-faced Bree (Kate Mara). The government calls them “terrorists”, and to Ev, the film’s emotional center, sees them as brutal and shortsighted. Still, her decision to preserve her mortally injured husband as a consciousness inside PINN is obviously a Very Bad Idea, at least for viewers who’ve heard of Frankenstein and Skynet.
This bad idea produces Johnny Depp as a digital image, hovering on an assortment of screens, sometimes featuring code over his face, transforming over months and years from his pale death-bed incarnation to a more like-his-old-self image. (That this recreation is initiated by a moment when, in frustration, Ev turns off the spastic-seeming computer and then turns it back on is a not-very-inside joke that might amuse anyone who’s ever been frustrated by such a machine.)
At first, it’s touching to see Ev’s response to this two-dimensional reincarnation, mainly because her own face is so extraordinarily expressive, her gestures so earnest. But it’s not long before Will’s machinations look creepy, as he moves huge amounts of money so as to fund the construction of a mighty underground facility to house and more fully empower himself-as-AI, as well as the nanotechnology that allows him to heal the sick and turn these individuals into Borg-like “hybrids”, part themselves new and improved, part him.
You might forgive the movie’s skipping over all manner of logistical difficulties in order to reinforce its focus on the increasingly odd couple’s mutual devotion to saving the planet, fighting the government (in the form of FBI agents played by Cilllian Murphy and Cole Hauser) and also the terrorists who start working with the government. But in this focus, the film has to reduce the complexities of Ev’s struggle, her worry over Will’s expanding powers, and especially the contradictions of her abject loneliness and sense of being surveilled at every moment of her life. In every space she inhabits, apparently, Will can see and monitor her, like she’s married to the NSA.
Ev’s struggle is exacerbated, of course, when she’s advised by friends and fellow AI researches like Max and the oh-so-fatherly Joseph Tagger (Morgan Freeman). They see Will’s ongoing expansiveness as threatening, indeed the very collision between “mankind and technology” Max names at film’s start. It’s one thing to conceive Will as that collision, but it’s another thing to make that concept visual and, disappointingly, literal. So, that image of Will must appear on hundreds of screens, his facial expressions must be obvious designations of his intentions, and Ev’s interactions with him must be increasingly absurd renditions of more conventional couples’ spats: they complain about one another’s affectations and attitudes, they guess at each other’s motives, they can never give each other enough “space.”
This idea, that the problem posed by too much surveillance can be so intimate, so comprehensible as a couple’s problem, is either a terrible nor new idea (think about Hal following Dave around in an enclosed space in 2001 or James Cameron’s other, less obviously malevolent version of Skynet, Arnold Schwarzenegger as Jamie Lee Curtis’ all-knowing husband in True Lies). But this version of it is limited by its own efforts to be legible on screen, as nanotech strands rising up from the ground, as a nanotech-infused atmosphere (“Its in the rain!”), and again, Will on screens or in persons (his voice emanating from members of his Borgy army). These many manifestations make Ev’s story less intimate and exponentially sillier.
It’s frustrating to try to make sense of this ostensibly brilliant person’s ever goofier choices and reactions, until you realize that Transcendence has never been her story, but rather, Max’s account of her story. And with that realization, the nonsense makes sense, unfortunately.