Seeking the impossible, some scientists would gladly stay up all night and work all day. Tradeoffs such as isolation, and poor hygiene become acceptable, and immediately upon meeting Transcendence’s Will Caster (Johny Depp) we recognize him as one of those and warm to him and his more balanced wife, Evelyn.
The Casters along with their friend Max (Paul Bettany) are research scientists in the field of artificial intelligence. And with their current project, Evelyn Caster (Rebecca Hall) envisions healing man and our poisoned ecosystem, but her husband has farther-reaching dreams — what he calls, transcendence.
This transcendence is the topic and title of Wally Pfister’s directorial debut. But in his film he strips the word of the religious calm in which it’s normally wrapped and rebrands it as a scary concept, right along with the love and devotion which inspires it.
When — and the question is one of time, not feasibility — science brings us to the point of transcendence, should we go there, the film asks. After all, if we can decipher the code that made us, what is to stop us playing God?
The question is answered wittily in the film by its lead scientist, but is also topical given that Alexander Seifalian at University College, London is leading a research effort to generate body parts from stem cells, a quest that has been reported to involve various labs around the world, as is the scenario in the film.
Organs such as blood vessels, tear ducts, and windpipes have already made it into a few Brits, but the goal researchers say is to “transplant more types of body parts into patients,” according to an April 9 Yahoo news report, “including what would be the world’s first nose made partly from stem cells.”
In Pfister’s Transcendence, nanotechnology is the key to such medical and technological advances, but it scares members of a group called Revolutionary Independence From Technology (RIFT) who fight artificial intelligence on ethical grounds, led by the intense and determined leader, Bree (Kate Mara). She is a borderline fanatic, but is relatable because of the simple way she expresses her fear, and conveys the urgency and moral dilemma of dealing with a computer that thinks it’s a man. However, when they try to stop the Caster’s research they inadvertently accelerate progress in artificial intelligence, and lead Will to opt for an artificial existence.
Max and Joseph Tagger (Morgan Freeman) then become instrumental in the outcome of RIFT’s plans because although Joseph turns his back to parties to focus on research, he is balanced enough to see the hope and the challenge that comes with Will’s brand of transcendence.
The theory and application of artificial intelligence is fascinating, and there are moments when you are drawn in by the beautiful visuals that depict the world with clean water and regenerated forests. And to his credit, Johnny Depp makes us uneasy about where Will’s intelligence might take us if his wife betrays their work or stops loving him. But there are also scenes with Evelyn where she is obviously an appendage for Will but not treating us to the type of internal or scientific dialogue she could have.
As a couple, the artificial Will and his still real wife Evelyn are challenged to relate using more than memories, and the most effective portrayal comes during one of their spats when Evelyn demands her space and Will takes the hint and essentially leaves the room, playing out like an emotional lovers’ quarrel.
On the other hand, you are mostly an observer; one expected to put a few puzzles together but who wishes for more, to connect below the surface, to penetrate through the suspicions and understand deeply where the world is going and how one fateful decision will endanger the simple life.
Ultimately, Transcendence makes one thing clear: Scientific developments often precede our laws. We’re still grappling with laws and norms around artificial insemination and children’s right to know their parents for instance, so perhaps we need to consider the what-if scenarios and not go blindly into the future, tossing away attributes that make us vulnerable, but human. Now is the time Pfister would have you decide how far you will let technology take you; Now, before you’re besieged by it.