Will (Johnny Depp) and Evelyn (Rebecca Hall) are computer scientists working on A.I.s. When Will gets very sick, Evelyn enlists the help of Max (Paul Bettany) to try and scan Will’s brain activity and upload it and with it him to their system to try and save his life that way. Against all odds, the experiment is a success but Will doesn’t seem to be quite himself anymore.
From the trailer I was pretty damn certain that Transcendence wouldn’t be the most positive film about technology out there. But I thought that at least it would be entertaining. But unfortunately it was boring. So boring I fell asleep for a bit during the showdown.
I think the idea that you scan a brain in its structure and activity and upload it to a computer somewhere, is an interesting one and Paglen obviously thought about this bit and how it could work (or at least how it sounds plausible) a lot. Even if you don’t think it’s actually possible, it is a good starting point for a film.
The problem was where the film went from there. A thirst for knowledge is automatically something bad. The moral center (or maybe the “soul”) of a person is, apparently, not in their brain as everything else. Pure rationality means absolute evil.* Instead of falling into those old semi-wisdoms, it would have been fascinating to look at questions of identity: can Will be the same person without the body he’s used to? How does he experience the world as a bodiless entity? What does it do to his relationship with Evelyn that his physicality is changed so much? [This could have been an interesting parallel to experiencing life with a newly disabled body and general treatment of disabiltiy.] But the film rather screams “ZOMG nanobots!” and leaves it at that.
But even with a problematic story, the film – particularly with that cast (though Morgan Freeman, Cillian Murphy and Kate Mara are squandered) – could have had things to offer. Like entertainment value. But it’s a boring mess. Apart from great visuals and Paul Bettany (and visuals of Paul Bettany), there was just nothing to hold on to that would have kept me interested (particularly because Bettany isn’t as much in the film as I would have liked).
It might have worked. Maybe with a better script. Maybe with better pacing. Maybe with a shorter length. But that are a whole lof maybes. In the end, Transcendence just doesn’t live up to its potential.
Summarizing: Skip it.
*I’m well aware of the Dialectic of Enlightenment and that rational thought can lead to evil. But compassion and empathy are not necessarily irrational. Feelings are not necessarily irrational. Why is it somehow more rational to say “Humans are fucked up sometimes, so let’s kill them all” than “Humans are fucked up sometimes, maybe they’ll need help to do better”? But that’s fucking ALWAYS the conclusion in films when some superior intelligence focuses on humanity until they are shown that humanity has some redeeming features. Nobody ever adresses the huge assumptions that underlie that kind of reasoning.