Science-fiction writers have long pondered the melding of man with his machines. In “Transcendence” the consequences of empowering artificial intelligence are once again explored by Will Caster (Johnny Depp), a visionary seeking to create a sentient computer program.
Guided by his beloved wife and academic fellow, Evelyn (Rebecca Hall), Caster seeks research funds from a monied community of contributors. In a great hall filled to capacity, the audience listens attentively as Caster expounds upon the benefits of blending human consciousness with the extraordinary powers of computers.
Representing the opposite perspective, an organization calling itself R.I.F.T., run by young computer programmer Bree (Kate Mara), forecasts Caster’s vision will be the end of human self-determination. R.I.F.T.’s vision is to prevent the rise of a self-aware artificial consciousness, whatever the cost.
Paul Bettany appears as Max Waters, Will and Evelyn’s close friend, a neurobiologist excited by the possibilities of Caster’s proposal but unconvinced Caster can avoid pitfalls.
When Caster learns an injury he sustained will kill him in a matter of weeks, Max agrees to work with Caster and Evelyn to upload Will’s characteristics and consciousness onto a large-capacity data storage device. Much time is expended to make this exercise appear scientifically plausible, but it’s time we’d rather see spent on the high concepts explored during the film’s latter half.
After Caster dies, and his consciousness is expressed from within a computer, he orders Max and Evelyn to immediately connect him to the Internet so he can protect them from R.I.F.T. Max worries that granting Caster’s request could ultimately be harmful to society, while Evelyn, seeking to preserve whatever remains of her husband, elects to trust Caster’s motives.
Once Will’s consciousness gains access to the Internet his vision takes some surprising turns, while Max’s fears are also made manifest, some predictably, others less so. Whether an aware intelligence could harness our collective knowledge to leapfrog hundreds, perhaps thousands, of years ahead of current technology is an intriguing idea, but the film soon abandons that thought in the interest of hurtling toward a comfortable, if shortsighted conclusion.
If we believe that artificial intelligence will become self-aware in the future, then the looming question is how we persuade such an entity to benefit our cause while simultaneously respecting our privacy and individuality.
Johnny Depp takes on the understated role of a cerebral being tempered by his character’s deep connection to a select few. Much of the plot turns on Depp’s ability to convey the conflict between Caster’s emotions and his computerized persona’s logic-based methodology. The sadness emanating from Will’s dark eyes indicates that he never entirely loses his humanity, while his increasingly matter-of-fact demeanor indicates a flattening of emotions.
Hall expresses Evelyn’s unwavering dedication to her husband, while slowly realizing his digital incarnation is evolving into a different being. Hall’s job is to convey Evelyn’s attraction and repulsion, or some combination thereof, toward Caster in each of several forms he inhabits throughout the film. It’s a tricky business, but she consistently delivers reactions that hit their mark.
Ultimately “Transcendence” examines a future we are unlikely to avoid, while making a case for putting a human consciousness at the helm of any self-aware, artificial intelligence. Whether we have, or ever will, evolve sufficiently to supply the right human for that job remains a tantalizing question.