I waited until the movie theatre lights were turned on after Transcendence ended with the hope that a secret post-credit sequence would reveal this movie to be a surprise prequel to either the impending rebooted-Battlestar Galactica, a movie version of Doctor Who, or even another new Star Trek. This isn’t to say I was offended by the derivative premises of Transcendence at all, instead, like the A.I. version of Dr. Castor (Johnny Depp) himself, I wanted the movie to expand outward and take over other movies!
Artfully unpacked, the film offers a classic (and suddenly urgent) science fiction question: when consciousness exceeds particular established mores, at what point do we freak out? Or to put it another way: when does an all-powerful computer brain cease to be benevolent?
In her second summer as the partner of a mad-scientist (last year she was stuck with Guy Peirce in Iron Man 3) Rebecca Hall plays Eveyln Caster, the wife of Will Caster; obviously played by Johnny Depp, who quite possibly didn’t actually need to be on set for a lot of the filming of this movie. Seriously, as soon as Will is uploaded into the computer by Eveyln, other than maybe like one scene later, I don’t see why Johnny Depp couldn’t have literally phoned in his entire performance. Maybe this movie is really a parable about how movies will start to suck if famous actors use FaceTime and Skype instead of actually showing up.
Will Caster is a brilliant A.I. computer genius, and after giving a stirring speech on how he, Eveyln, and their friend Max can change the world, Will is shot by an extremist anti-technology group. But don’t worry! Will’s not dead. Instead, it’s revealed this terrorist group—RIFT—shot him with a radioactive bullet, so he’ll die slower. My theory as to why RIFT made this decision is because screenwriter Jack Paglen couldn’t decide between a scene in which Johnny Depp gets shot and one in which he slowly gets sick and dies.
And while a small quibble, this is to me, a huge part of why the movie never lives up to its potential: it’s too limited by clichés of contemporary movies. The gunshot scene is in the trailer for the movie, and then Eveyln uploads Will into a computer like in the next second (trailers are short, people). But in the film, everybody wants to feel like they are getting a more complete experience than a movie trailer, so he still gets shot, but doesn’t die right away. If you watch the trailer right now, and then imagine about 20 minutes in between every major plot “revelation” in this trailer, you’ve just watched Transcendence. The upside of this is if you like the trailer, you’ll like the movie (kind of.) The downside is obvious.
So, if you’ve watched that trailer (which I guess is really spoilery) then what I’m about to reveal will ruin nothing. After dying, Eveyln decides they can put Will’s entire consciousness into a pre-existing A.I. they already have in order to make it self-sufficient. This notion is the first of three fairly tired sci-fi movie conceits which rear their heads in Transcendence like ugly little Rumpelstiltskins, basically claiming: YOU CAN’T CREATE A SELF-SUSTAINING A.I. WITH OUT FIRST USING AN EXISTING (ORGANIC) CONSCIOUSNESS.
Now I’m no expert in this field, but I have done a little bit of research, and this not only seems like a fairly reductive way to think about what A.I. is, but also misses the opportunity to draw parallels between how we view ourselves as different machines than machine-machines. To make my own point a little reductive but full of Patrick Stewart: the excellent TNG episode “The Measure of Man,” has Picard say “we too are machines, just of a different kind.” As usual, a good episode of Star Trek gets more thoughtful philosophy and story drama into one line than most big movies manage with two hours.
The second big cliché is the idea that any form of artificial consciousness will grow impatient with the limits of organic machinations, and do everything it can to achieve absolute power under the “diluted” banner of efficiency. As clichés go, this one is fairly awesome because its dramatic applications in popular science fiction are evidenced in everything from the Cylons in Battlestar Galactica to the Cybermen in Doctor Who to, of course, the Borg in Star Trek. And here, Transcendence doesn’t really disappoint. After Will’s A.I. really gets going, he seems genuinely helpful and focuses on making Eveyln happy. This all works fairly well, and if you can imagine the Borg starting up accidentally because of a couple trying to stay together, it’s a pretty satisfying notion. At no point does Johnny Depp’s computer eyes become red, nor does he maliciously murder people in the name of his new world-order. The movie actually has enough restraint to avoid that, but it does sort of split the difference with “enhanced” people who serve as cyber-zombies.
Here is where the third and final cliché enters, which is the standard “how to kill the monster” thing that is really cool when you’re a kid, but kind of dumb in a grown-up movie. Early in the movie Will makes a “sanctuary” in his backyard that creates a deadzone for all wireless signals by using a bunch of copper fence. So, when the crazy stuff is happening toward the end of the movie, everyone is using copper fences to screen out the signals from the Will/Computer to stop the cyber-zombies from having connection to the Borg Collective.
This is really, really dumb for a lot of reasons, but the biggest mistake here is that it just seems cheap. Really? With all this cool stuff Johnny Depp can do as a computer, he can’t get around the copper problem? The movie never lets Rebecca Hall don a suit made of pennies, nor does Morgan Freeman throw a penny into a computer while quoting Abraham Lincoln, but still. I think we accept that gold can kill the cybermen in Doctor Who, because their origins go back into the 1960s, but this kind of evil-robot kryptonite doesn’t really fly now. What if on Battlestar Galactica the Cylons were killed by candy or something? You see my point.
Which is what I mean with the Rumpelstiltskin thing. It’s like big-mainstream movies feel that when they get a hold of these thought-provoking premises, they’ve also made a deal with Rumpelstiltskin—like their good idea has a clichéd consequence. But I’m here to say: Screenwriters! You don’t have to give up your first born just because you’ve woven straw into gold. Which in this case translates to: you don’t have to have Borg-Zombies just because you’ve uploaded Johnny Depp onto the Internet.
So, though knowledge and the expansion of information is at the core of what Transcendence is all about, it’s either paradoxical—or fitting—that the potential of this deftly-crafted movie is trapped by the limitations of a thriller- genre which everybody seems to think requires a God computer to try and kill us all. And while this movie offers us a brief glimpse of contrary messages or thoughts about its topic, it still comes at us like a cyber-zombie, lurching forward to steal our time and hard-earned pennies.
Ryan Britt is a longtime contributor to Tor.com.