Man vs. machine sci fi is both derivative and ridiculous.
By Max Weiss. Posted on April 17, 2014, 6:12 pm
Since Transcendence is about a woman who transfers her dead husband’s consciousness onto a massive supercomputer, it’s almost impossible to not cheekily refer to it as Him.
But in a way, Transcendence is everything Her wasn’t—and not in a good way, either.
While Her was a lyrical, deeply felt, genuinely thought-provoking meditation on man’s relationship to technology, Transcendence clubs you over the head with its obvious pro-humanity/anti-technology politics. And oh yeah, it’s incredibly dumb, too.
Johnny Depp plays Will Caster, a shaggy haired genius, who is working on a computer that does more than just greatly exceed human intelligence, it can intuitively learn from experience, essentially replicating the human brain.
A radical anti-technology terrorist group, led by spunky Bree (Kate Amara), fears that this kind of technology could essentially wipeout mankind, and has been killing off all the scientists who are working on it.
One of her soldiers shoots Will with a poison bullet and he has only a few weeks to live. It’s Will’s wife, fellow scientist Evelyn (Rebecca Hall), who suggests transferring his consciousness onto one of the machines. Their best friend Max (Paul Bettany) is skeptical—that machine won’t really be Will, he says, but some sort of creepy and all-powerful simulacrum.
Of course, as these things must go, Will and Evelyn plow forth with their plan. Will dies. At first it seems like Evelyn’s frantic last minute efforts didn’t pay off and then suddenly—bleep, bloop, bleep—the voice of Will is coming from the machine, and then later, as a kind of holographic image, like Tupac at Coachella.
Is it really Will? Evelyn certainly thinks so—skeptical Max remains skeptical.
Then things get weird(er).
Will wants to build a compound in the desert (Max points out he never wanted one of those when he was alive). Evelyn’s all “good plan, Will.” Max gets kidnapped by the anti-technology terrorist and joins forces with them.
Cillian Murphy plays the only FBI agent in the country who seems to be interested in the fact that Evelyn and her Max Headroom-like hubby are building a giant humanity sucking machine that could destroy life as we know it.
No one gets arrested: Not Evelyn for the sudden windfall of cash it must’ve taken to build her gleaming, Will-powered empire. (Will hacked into some bank and transferred millions into her account).
Not Bree, because everyone seems to have forgotten that SHE’S A MURDERER.
Soon, Will becomes some sort of computer faith healer, with one catch: He will cure your blindness or crippled leg, as long as you plug into his machine. Hey, what’s loss of personal autonomy for renewed strength and vision?
I’m actually making Transcendence sound better than it is. Its man vs. technology tropes became clichés shortly after 2001: A Space Odyssey hit theaters. And its attempt to visualize Will’s digital apocalypse—representing bytes of data as little particles wafting into the sky—is downright silly.
Speaking of silly, a fun Transcendence drinking game would be to drink every time director Wally Pfister does a time lapse closeup of a droplet of water hitting the ground. It’s a metaphor, see? Not sure exactly what it’s a metaphor for, but I’m sure it’s a metaphor for something. Hey, makes about as much sense as the rest of this film.
Max Weiss is the managing editor of Baltimore and a film and pop culture critic.