In the near future posited by the film Transcendence, which opens today, residents of Berkeley, California are living in a kind of police state. The power grid is down. No computers, no Internet. Which means no Facebook, either (thank God). A shopkeeper uses a beat-up laptop as a doorstop. We know the end days are especially dire because a dirt-caked, cracked cell phone lies lifelessly on the sidewalk. Its technological purpose has been reduced to mere object. A potential tool for an enterprising human. Recall the opening scene from 2001: A Space Odyssey: Instead of apes smashing skulls with bones, the aftermath survivors of Transcendence may as well be wielding their iPhones as weapons.
"They say there's power in Boston, some phone service in Denver," intones a melancholic Paul Bettany, playing a neurobiologist named Dr. Max Waters. We quickly discover Max had a hand in creating all this mess. After what he calls an "inevitable collision" between humankind and technology, "things are far from what they were." Existence itself, he says, "feels smaller" without the Internet.
That's all, folks. Welcome to the not-so-brave world of the new Johnny Depp anti-technology thriller Transcendence.
So how did we get there? That's the premise of this cautionary directorial debut from Wally Pfister, the Oscar-winning cinematographer behind the camera for Christopher Nolan's Inception and Dark Knight films. You can probably guess the reason why we destroyed modern civilization as we knew it: Hubris. Mankind — and in this case, a woman, too — messed with a power, a force they had no business messing with. Namely: Artificial Intelligence. Curiously killed the cat, the A.I. researcher, and the cat video, too.
"Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely," said historian, politician, and writer Sir John Dalberg-Acton. "Great men are almost always bad men." Our great bad man is Dr. Will Caster, played by Depp. Five years before the Internet hit the fan, Will, along with fellow computer scientist and wife Evelyn, played by Rebecca Hall (The Town, Vicky Cristina Barcelona and The Prestige), and good buddy Max (Bettany) have all been monkeying around with a sentient computer known as PINN (Physically Independent Neural Network). Sentient computers are always given endearing acronyms names, which make them seem all the more human. Remember HAL 9000? How cute.
The trio are all protégés of old-timer computer guru Professor Joseph Tagger (Morgan Freeman), but of the three, Will is the rock star. "He has groupies," complains Max just before Will is about to wow an audience of potential donors at a Bay Area tech conference. "Why don't I have groupies?" (Because, Bettany, you've got second billing right below Depp.) Anyway, the researchers are reportedly on the edge of a breakthrough that will not only imbue PINN with all the planet's collective knowledge, but also add in bonus features like a conscious mind and human emotions. With all of PINN's processing power, the researchers are going to end poverty, hunger, cancer, Alzheimer's, all the rest. We've heard this before from any number of starry-eyed futurists. "So you want to create a God –your God?" asks an incredulous audience member at the presentation. "Isn't that what man has always done?" Caster replies, dripping with Depp's self-assured charismatic funkiness.
Of course, Caster is hedging his bets about the promise of technology. At home, he's constructed a network dead spot in his back yard for his wife, so she won't be distracted by her smart phone and laptop. Depp also loves his analog vinyl collection, curiously just like the Tom Cruise character from Oblivion, one of many post-apocalyptic bedtime stories that hit us last year. To prepare for the end of the world, you better start combing through the stacks at your local Goodwill store and stockpile all the LPs you can find. 'Cause iTunes doesn't work after doomsday. The song Caster plays in the movie is "Genesis," from the 1974 solo album by Hot Tuna and Jefferson Airplane guitarist Jorma Kaukonen. (Sample lyrics: "Time has come for us to pause / And think of living as it was / Into the future we must cross, must cross.")
In my reviews, as a rule, I try not to give away any more spoilers than a reasonable person might surmise from watching a movie's trailer. But at least I can say this: shortly after the tech conference, there's an attack by a technology-is-evil terrorist group called Revolutionary Independence From Technology (yep, also known as RIFT). Will Caster gets shot. He is slowly dying. Racked by grief, Eve uploads Will's brain into a version of PINN. His memories and his knowledge are preserved. PINN becomes Will, Will become PINN. "I think he's still fragmented," Evelyn says, listening to a version of her hubby that sounds like a bad Skype video chat. "I'm going to run a diagnostic." Were it only that simple. For the most of the rest of the movie, Depp is seen on video screen only, performing as a fancy digital version of his former self. Which presents its own acting challenges, I'm sure.
But is the Will Caster that technology helps simulate, with voice and image and apparent thought, the real Will Caster, heart and soul, or just a clever simulation? What makes us human — our ideas, or smarts, or our ability to feel? These are the overlapping, quasi-philosophical notions broached by Transcendence. Other films have raised them too. Writers and directors have created memorable intelligent machine characters as disparate as RoboCop in RoboCop earlier this year, Samantha from Her, Skynet and the T-800 from The Terminator movies, WOPR/Joshua from Wargames, Roy Batty from Blade Runner, and Gigolo Joe from A.I. Artificial Intelligence (Note: Hey, has anyone ever noticed that Spielberg released A.I. in the year 2001. Get it?)
Transcendence does raise the thorny ethical issue we're all grappling with as our computers and devices become more powerful, even speak to us, and we invite the consciousness of Siri into our lives. We are plumbing that human intelligence/artificial intelligence divide every day. But Pfister, working from a script by newcomer Jack Paglen, never quite settles on the film's focus. Meanwhile, virtual Will Caster gets smarter. He connects himself to the Internet. He needs more power, both literally and figuratively. As he persuades Evelyn to build a vast underground research facility in the desert which becomes the center for various experiments — goodhearted, or perhaps nefarious — Transcendence divides, like a cell, into two movies, interlaced and interlocked, and wound around each other like a double helix. The plot twists these two cords tightly, and by the end, one of them breaks.
The first is Transcendence the love story. The dilemma of Caster's passing presents Evelyn with a poignant choice. Does she let him go, as we all must let go of a loved one who dies? Or does she conjure a fantasy for herself, in this case, a technological mirage, in the hopes that he might somehow live on? The years pass, super-secret lab gets more sophisticated, as does the virtual Depp, and both Max (Bettany) and Evelyn become corrupted in different ways. That's when the other film nested in Transcendence infects the other. This is a more didactic, often clunky, scolding tale about the dangerous siren song of technology. Sure, the virtual husband-and-wife team think they're doing good. There's some gobbledygook about a new nanotechnology the super-brained virtual nerd dreams up. "I made a breakthrough last night. I think you'll be pleased," says the silver-tongued Caster, more autonomous than ever before. "We can rebuild any materials faster than before." (Isn't that a line from Six Million Dollar Man?). Mwaahaha! The computers are taking over. If only the public would understand. "Once they see what the technology can do they will embrace it and it will change their lives."
Before long, the government is involved. There's also convoys of armored cars, and tanks, and jeeps, and rigs of every size. And rocket launchers. Nanotechnology ectoplasm spurts out of the ground and attacks! And like an innocent bystander getting sucked into the Master Control Program, that quieter film about love and loss gets subsumed into a high-tech Invasion of the Body Snatchers action flick. And we are dutifully warned: Becoming hybrids with our computers dehumanizes us. As we approach the hive mind, technology will assimilate us into the Borg.
There's nothing quite like a good old fashioned, irreplaceable human being, you see.
"Human emotion can contain illogical conflict," says Max in an awkwardly preachy moment near the end of Transcendence, as the post-twerk, post-TMZ.com, post-like button apocalypse is looming. "You can love someone yet hate the things that they have done. A machine can't reconcile that." Thanks Paul Bettany. All true, I'm sure, but what a boring lecture. Is that the most interesting verdict Transcendence could levy?
The more interesting idea, for me, is that possibility raised by the intersection of loss and technology. Would you preserve a loved one, your soul or data-mate, if he or she were about to kick off? There's great poetic power in this dream of how, perhaps in the future, we might not ever need "bury" a loved one if some satisfying, convincing digital approximation can linger. I wish that Pfister, or screenwriter Paglen, had been braver to build the whole film around this sadder but more tender twist on the romance genre. "Do you remember when we met," the virtual Johnny Depp asks Evelyn, his wine-sodden wife, one night. "I remember everything." What lady wouldn't fall for that, a digital version of their man, whose memory is foolproof, and backed up, when her own spouse can't even remember their wedding anniversary?