There is a sense in which Wally Pfister's Transcendence is one of those movies that was inevitably going to be made sooner or later: it deals with a hot-button issue somewhere on the borderline between science and society, the sort of thing which is still essentially speculative, but sufficiently close enough to reality for people to be thinking seriously about it. As a piece of socio-cultural history it may well be recalled as a flag moment in the development of our awareness of an idea: if something is well-enough established as a concept for Hollywood to start making a big-budget all-star cast movie about it, it can't be that obscure. Whether or not the movie is any good is another matter, of course.
The movie tips its hand by opening with a prologue set in a post-technological world where lifestyles seem to have stepped back in time a century or two: mobile phones lie discarded, laptops are used to prop open doors, and so on. We are promised the story of how this came about.
It turns out to be the story of brilliant computer scientist Will Caster (Johnny Depp) and his wife Evelyn (Rebecca Hall). They are both working on creating a strong Artificial Intelligence in the belief that such an entity, capable of improving its own capabilities at extraordinary speed, would revolutionise the world. Unfortunately a radical terrorist organisation has appeared and is devoted to stopping work on this kind of system, and an attack from one of these people leaves Caster with only a very short time to live.
Using radical new technology, Evelyn and her friend Max (the ever-watchable Paul Bettany) attempt to save Caster. That's save as in 'save to a hard-drive' – they wire his brain up to electrodes and copy his cerebral functions to a computer, effectively creating a download of his mind. But once Will Caster's body has expired, in what sense is the entity in the computer truly him? Have they in fact just spawned something totally new and alien, a potential threat to civilisation?
Well, this is just the first act of the movie, and probably its strongest segment: as I believe I've mentioned in the past, I am somewhat familiar with some of the philosophical issues associated with AI research, and the movie articulates these clearly and intelligently. From here, however, the film's identity as a successor to fondly-remembered early 70s SF movies like The Andromeda Strain, The Forbin Project, and Phase IV becomes much clearer. Much of the action takes place in gleaming underground installations, the nature of human existence is pondered upon at length, and there is a slightly awkward mixture of action set-pieces and visual and narrative extravagance. As usual, some rather good actors (in this case Morgan Freeman and Cillian Murphy) are retained solely to stand around on the periphery of the plot and look vaguely concerned.
And, as you may have guessed, the whole thing doesn't quite come together as a satisfying whole. Partly this is because, while the dialogue is telling us this story is about a potentially world-changing event, the actual images are all about a small town in the middle of nowhere with a lot of solar panels. There's no sense of scale to the crisis (there's not much sense of crisis at all, if we're honest), while the film's transition from just-about-plausible near-future drama to something more fantastical is a bit of a wrench as well. The fact that the plot appears to be well-endowed with a number of big holes is also a problem.
This is ultimately a film about ideas, but – presumably in an attempt to make it more commercial – thriller and action elements have been grafted on, without much conviction. There's a subplot about nanotechnology being used to enhance people so they become superhuman cyborgs, but the film shies away from using this as a device to create the extravagant action sequences you might expect. In a way this is commendable, as they clearly don't want to make a blandly obvious and simplistic film dealing with a black-and-white ideology.
On the other hand, it may just be that Pfister and his team have just made a vague and oblique and slightly confused film dealing with a black-and-white ideology instead. It's probably a great problem for Transcendence that it's come out only a few months after Her, another movie about the nature of AI and how human beings will come to terms with it, both as a society and in our personal relationships. However, Transcendence is a much more conservative and predictable movie than Her: it largely functions in a cautionary-tale mode, the usual old story of scientists interfering with things of which man was not meant to know, playing God, and so on (there's a fair bit of religious imagery in this film). It gives the human condition a privileged status and seems to default to the assumption that anything radically different from and more powerful than us is necessarily a threat. To be fair, the film does hedge its bets to a considerable degree come the climax – the human characters may just be acting out of an unjustified fear of the AI – but this seemed to me to just be trying to give the conclusion a little spurious depth.
Wally Pfister is a brilliant cinematographer and long-time collaborator with Christopher Nolan, whom I was not surprised to find credited as an executive producer on Transcendence. However, this doesn't have the clarity of ideas, the narrative drive, or indeed the sheer innovation of any of Nolan's own movies. The near-total humourlessness of the film is a problem, and none of the actors really seem capable of bringing their characters completely to life (it increasingly seems to me that when Johnny Depp isn't in camp overdrive mode, he just comes across as slightly stoned all the time), but the main problems with the film come from the storytelling issues I mentioned above. It has a whole bunch of ideas and themes it wants to deal with, but it can't quite build a story just from them alone, and the inclusion of more traditional action-SF elements doesn't work. This is an interesting film, and a curious attempt at a 70s-style intelligent-SF movie four decades on – but it simply isn't close to being completely satisfying as a story.