The Dull Dogma of Transcendence

Wally Pfister pits good against technology in a directorial debut full of meaningless symbolism.

The Singularity is a wonderful menace for science fiction. It's the suggestion of a point, sometime in the future, when a greater-than-human intelligence irrevocably changes the arc of humanity's future. The theory predicts an artificially intelligent machine that's so smart, a person literally cannot comprehend its abilities. What would happen if it existed? Would it heal our bodies? Would it revitalize our planet? Would it end war and solve world hunger?

If such a machine existed, would it be any different from a god?

Transcendence, a dull movie directed by Oscar-winning cinematographer Wally Pfister that tries very hard to be smart, is about this question as much as it's about the relationship between nature and technology. It's also very much about Johnny Depp's blank stares into nothingness, nano-enhanced superhumans, and the cockamamie idea that a person must either support the ever-advancing march of innovation or reject it in its entirety. It's like watching a philosophy lecture in a clown college.

Depp plays Dr. Will Caster, an artificial-intelligence researcher who hopes to build sentient machines. A technophobic extremist group named Revolutionary Independence From Technology—yes, R.I.F.T.—attacks Caster after a speech to potential investors, shooting him with an irradiated bullet. He survives the assassination attempt, but the radiation poisoning is his death sentence. (The so-called "radical neo-Luddites" don't always mind using modern technology, it seems.) As Caster’s body fails, his wife Evelyn (Rebecca Hall) urges his partner Max (Paul Bettany) to help her upload his mind into a supercomputer. They do, and within minutes, Caster wants more. He wants to access the Internet. He wants to go everywhere.

From there, Transcendence reaches its most intriguing moments—because it almost becomes a different movie. Evelyn refuses to believe the digital Caster is any different from the mortal one. ("His mind is a pattern of electrical signals," she says.) Together, they build a futuristic oasis in a rural desert town, where Caster develops the ability to perform miracles through groundbreaking medical technology: He heals the blind, teaches cripples to walk, and revives the dead. He also programs himself into the people he heals, weaving a collective mind through an army of bodies.

While the movie quickly devolves into a technophobic tirade, the compelling questions it has raised linger: How has Evelyn's relationship with her husband changed? Can she still love him? What does love look like between a person and an omnipotent machine? If Transcendence were a smaller movie about that relationship—a movie that gave Hall more room to express ambiguity about it—perhaps Pfister would have found the difficult answers he's grasping toward.

Perhaps that's why Pfister returns, again and again, to a garden in Will and Evelyn's backyard. When Will Caster was still a man, he turned the garden into a sanctuary where no wireless signals could be sent or received. A "dead zone," he called it. It was their personal Eden. In the garden, Pfister’s camera repeatedly follows a droplet of water as it falls from a sunflower. It's a jarring motif, if only because it suggests depth of meaning where none exists. This Eden is lost. Its Tree of Knowledge is bare. Transcendence is an unholy sort of perversion of faith, as imagined through the frame of the Singularity. Caster is indistinguishable from a god. He's a deity built of ones and zeroes.

In a recent essay for The New Yorker, Casey N. Cep described the phenomenon of "unplugging" as a fundamentally insidious idea. She writes: "For most of us, the modern world is full of gadgets and electronics, and we’d do better to reflect on how we can live there than to pretend we can live elsewhere." This is very true—you are you whether you are tweeting, or jogging, or sharing a selfie on Snapchat—and it suggests why Transcendence so poorly understands the culture it's trying to criticize. Transcendence approaches the question of technology as if it's a binary one. You're either in or out. Caster wants to build a machine with more computing power than the "collective intelligence of every person born," and R.I.F.T. terrorists tattoo the word "UNPLUG" on the undersides of their arms. The world can either be ruled by a power-hungry machine or lose the Internet forever. The movie allows for no other options.

Transcendence is a science-fiction movie that doesn't understand how people use technology. It suggests that the Singularity would behave as a Christ-like figure, but it doesn't recognize the shades of meaning within the religious motifs it anchors itself to. Evelyn is devoted to protecting her husband's soul, but the movie's internal logic cannot decide if Caster's essence is or isn’t actually inside the machine. Pfister and screenwriter Jack Paglen peer into the future and shudder at the silhouette of what they think they see. Then they stumble backward in search of philosophical answers they won't find.

In an early scene, a man in a crowd confronts Caster about his project. The machine he wants to build, he says, is an attempt to create a god. Caster draws in a breath and answers. "Isn't that what mankind has always done?"

Not like this.