Where exactly do we draw the line between high and low culture? This question is one that has become increasingly relevant in the Internet age thanks to the collective group-think of things like twitter or facebook becoming legitimate measuring devices for the movie and television industry. This need to rank the quality of their products has always felt natural, a kind of reflection on art and our desire to achieve a lasting impact with it, but a cynical sort of detachment has gradually developed that creates a superficial barrier in our minds between what is thought of as “entertaining,” versus what will stick with us as the pinnacle of visual art.
But we also recognize that there is an overlap between “High Art, Low Art,” and this is the territory of films that straddle the line between entertaining us and genuinely making us pause and consider their ideas in a wider scheme of things. This was the difference between Total Recall the Schwarzenegger version, and glitzy Minority Report cum Blade Runner derivative that slunk away into obscurity the second it was kicked out of theaters.
If there was a line charting this, then Transcendence would fall somewhere between “The Purge” and “Dredd,” more idea driven then the former, but not utilizing those ideas as much as the latter. It would exist in a place where the narrative really belongs to the action thrillers where helicopters explode and people talk in matters of urgency rather then actual speech, but the characters and the soul of the movie is more akin to the introspective character driven drama that populates most indie science fiction flicks.
For all the “science gone amok” trappings it appears to have, Transcendence is a surprisingly subdued film that begins with a water droplet, reminding us of the natural world and the beauty we often lose when we turn to technology and it’s advances as ends in themselves. Our central character (Though not our protagonist per se) Will Caster, seems to share this view, opting to create a “Dead Zone” for him and his wife, Evelyn (Rebecca Hall) so that they can get away from the electronic signals that otherwise absorb both of their lives as scientists.
A highly ranked cast of actors compliments their lives, starting with Will’s slightly less technologically optimistic friends Max (Paul Bettany), and an aged professor named Joeseph Tagger (Morgan Freeman) Both are there for them after an anti-technology group led by a mysterious woman named Bree Evans (Kate Mara) conducts a coordinated attack on several high ranking professors, seemingly of belief that the creation of a self-aware artificial intelligence is not only hubris, but dangerous due to its inability to grasp human concepts of ethics or morality. The attack fatally injures Will, and he’s forced to face the reality that his dream of humanity achieving Transcendence is fated to die with his degenerating body.
But like Mary Shelly envisioned death giving birth to a new form of life, Evelyn realizes that she can at least try to give her dying husband a new one by transforming his biological information into digital information, and in doing so create the fabled “Ghost in the machine.” But can a machine translate a soul? How much of her husband will be translated? And if a human is able to transcend the body and become pure intelligence, what purposes will they chose to serve?
These speculative questions are the subject of both real and science fictional research, and perhaps predictably Transcendence engages with them on a level that most likely won’t satisfy either crowd. Whether Will is an accurate portrayal of what the first transcendent being might be and do isn’t really as important as how the rest of the characters react to his existence. The interesting thing about the film is how it gives both sides of the argument pretty decent reasons to believe he’s a destined for destruction, or the trans-revolution, but it’s actually hard to tell which way Will itself is leaning.
Because Evelyn sticks by his side, believing her husband has truly achieved transcendence, she views him as an unequivocal good, developing technology with life improving applications and is unable to understand the suspicion that Max and the anti-tech groups harbor. It’s a prime example of how splitting a narrative can create ambiguity between its character rather then painting one as right and the other as misguided. Will claims that “They won’t understand me,” and it’s true, because all those who are not privy to Evelyn’s firsthand knowledge see an alien intelligence, instead of a human who has taken on a non-human form.
This gets at perhaps the greatest tension that pervades the film, that even though scientists talk of The Singularity and life without bodies as something we should embrace as the natural progress of advancing technology, when faced with the actual prospect of a consciousness that is more than human, we can’t help but fear it because of what it represents to us. All natural life is thought to comes about not from human intervention, but through whatever force existed before us that led to our creation, yet here is a contradiction; a consciousness, thought to exist only in biology, but manifesting in a man-made device that is still fundamentally separate from the human body. How exactly are we supposed to react when man becomes his own God?
In Transcendence’s case, we see this dilemma in Evelyn Caster, and to the film’s credit it makes it more then just a love story with her playing the wife blinded by her emotions to the truth. Evelyn sticks with Will, but slowly comes to realize that a face on a screen, even one that can recall where they first met for a date, is not a true relationship. Unlike Scarlet Johansson in last year’s “Her,” Will needs to be more then just a companion to talk to, but a human being Evelyn can feel a bond with. In one scene he attempts to comfort her after scanning her vitals and deducing that she’s upset, only for her to react in horror when she realizes that the what had until now been a sacred place of privacy is now open to a being that is motivated by logic, rather then feeling.
Give the military some credit too, because for once they don’t react to something strange and potentially dangerous by nuking the damn thing. Led by Agent Donald Buchanan (Cillian Murphy, essentially just filling the place of the standard FBI guy, albeit with a impeccable American accent) they chose to listen to Joseph and Max and bring in breech-loading cannons that lack electronic components. Though it’s hard to see the military as a credible threat to Will’s advancing techno-omniscient powers, it makes for a surprisingly old-fashioned showdown.
As Will, and later the transcendent intelligence that takes his form, Johnny Depp plays him as low key and without the scene-stealing you might expect for a scientist whose ambition is essentially to become a God. Scruffy, but deeply driven and sharing a tenderness with his wife that underlines their relationship rather then stressing it, JD’s primary strength in the role is playing Will in several stages. At first we have only scrambled voice catches which sound eerie and inhuman, but he eventually assembles a face like a motion-captured video game character, until he finally achieves the unnerving image of a person who looks like they’ve learned how to smile from observing people in pictures, but has no real understanding of what it represents.
As his wife and witness to his transformation, Rebecca Hall’s role is the archetypal “what if?” scenario, and she’s good enough in displaying her mounting unease that you can forgive the character for being a little one-dimensional. Hall may look like Amy Acker, but her gaze is more intent and less wide-eyed even in the face of the miraculous discovery she and Max make. Her belief that Will has survived, that the person he was is the same consciousness that now exists beyond physical reality, is either touching or grating depending on whether you believe her performance or just the idea of the thing. Evelyn plays the believer till the very end, and that’s great for Will, but maybe not so great for her.
The last actress of note is the Kate Mara and there’s something clever in how the film sets up Evelyn’s opposite as another woman, though one with less to lose then her. Though the Bechdel test isn’t passed, Bree Evans is a decent female character who isn’t sexualized or made a love interest, and is quite capable of leading her anti-technology group RIFT to locate Evelyn and Will. Having been witness to a previous attempt by her former professor to transcend consciousness with a non-human subject, she convinces Max that the other possibility of uploading a person’s soul is more akin to the legendary short story “I Have No Mouth And I Must Scream.”
Sadly, her place in the movie is largely as a distant threat, and we’re prevented from getting any greater insight into her personality outside of Kate Mara’s white-blonde hair and black hat hacker jeans. It just goes to show that you’ve got to do more then just write diverse parts for women, you need to transcend the past and write parts and women who do more then just what the story tells them to do.
But at the end of the day, all you can really do is try to take your idea as far as your ambition will let you, and for Transcendence this means a future that may not be philosophically challenging or scientifically revelatory, but affirming that when we do achieve something similar, we may have a better idea of how to react to the uncertainty and fear that surrounds it. Time will tell if the theory of The Singularity and Transcendence will resemble anything like it was depicted here, but as a film that’s more idea then effects driven, and more skeptical of man’s desire to push the boundaries of what makes us human then remind us that we are human only to the extent that our ideas are humane. Everything else is just data.