By Christopher Binder (Lorton, Virginia, USA)
Transcendence: A Philosophical Counterpoint to The Terminator
Warning: spoilers down below
First time Director Wally Pfister, best known for his collaborative work as Christopher Nolan’s Cinematographer, delivers a solid, gorgeous meditation on the potential benefits and dangers of melding man and machine together. When Will Caster (Johnney Depp) is shot with an irradiated bullet by a member of R.I.F.T., a radical anti tech group lead by Bree (Kate Mara), Will’s wife Evelyn (Rebecca Hall) decides to try and save him by uploading his consciousness into a super computer. While Max (Paul Bettany) has his doubts and reservations about this, he helps his longtime friends out.
They ultimately do succeed in uploading Will before Max becomes too scared and leaves, getting abducted by Bree and her followers shortly after. Will then guides Evelyn to a rundown town in the middle of nowhere, where over the next 2 years Will becomes stronger while Evelyn helps him build an underground lab. I’ll try not to divulge too much of what happens after all of this but I do believe the film gets more right than wrong and is better than most people give it credit for.
I can think of several potential reasons why people either disliked or simply weren’t interested in seeing it. Captain America was in theaters, Transcendence was released on Good Friday and most people took the day off for religious reasons, the idea that a consciousness can be uploaded into a computer suggests that the body does not have a soul and is thus atheist, alienating several religious groups, the film was marketed as an action type thriller, the film was too slow, too many plot holes and/or leaps of logic, people just simply thought it wasn’t a very good movie etc.
As I mentioned in the title of this piece, I think the film is a counterpoint to The Terminator, much in the same vein as M. Night Shyamalan’s film Unbreakable, (still his best in my not so humble opinion) which could be viewed as a viable counterpoint to the comic book films of today. Instead of the machine becoming sentient and attempting to wipe out humanity because they have been deemed inferior, we get the machine with a, ahem, human soul who wants to help humanity out by bettering them and the world at large (ecologically speaking).
The price for this of course is the potential to lose one’s individuality and become part of a singular consciousness (like the Borg from Star Trek). Whether or not that’s a better or worse alternative to being wiped out by a nuclear holocaust I’ll leave open for debate. I will admit it did feel refreshing to not see one over the top action sequence piled on top of another, although I’m sure most people who went in to see the movie before me would heartily disagree.
Granted, the film does have its short comings. The fact that Will rewrote his source code after being uploaded would render the virus Max created later in the film ineffective would be the biggest (as pointed out by the film’s Goof section on IMDb). And the fact that virtually no press or news reporters were involved was rather vexing. But any of these could be comparable to any of the enormous plot holes/errors found in Christopher Nolan’s Inception or the Fascist ideology that makes up his Dark Knight Trilogy. Unfortunately Mr. Pfister did not have Batman or the enormous, memorable action set pieces Mr. Nolan is best remembered by his audiences for to back him up and ensure box office glory. Transcendence is basically an art film with a Hollywood budget.
I’ll only pause briefly at the end here to applaud Mr. Pfister’s wonderful decision to shoot on anamorphic 35mm film with no digital intermediate. The results speak for themselves visually. Sometimes the old ways simply are the best. Technology should not replace that which has come before it until it has surpassed all previous limitations.
As for the ending of the film, it looks like Bree and R.I.F.T. got their wish when all the tech in the world got virtually (no pun intended) destroyed by Max’s plot hole virus. But is that really a good thing? Mr. Pfister only pauses to show us the lights going off in one or two cities and no airplanes crashing into them, although I must say I’ve had more than my fill of those types of images in the past 12 or 13 years.
We get the sense that things have descended into Martial Law and possibly chaos, but I wish there could have been some character resolution for Bree in this regard, given the part she played in helping bring it all about. I guess, since there won’t be a sequel to this particular Spring/Summer film (remarkably) I’ll just have to ponder what a future world without any tech (but with some of Will’s water nanites) would be like. Or I could just start getting into NBC’s Revolution TV show. But I think I’ll pass.