Written by Jack Paglen
Directed by Wally Pfister
Starring Johnny Depp, Rebecca Hall, Paul Bettany, Morgan Freeman, Cillian Murphy, Kate Mara and more
There is no surprise in tragedy. The audience knows right from the beginning that things will fall apart, that the story will end in tears and blood and the death of a thousand different hopes. We stay to see the shape of the collapse, to see the beginning of the spider-silk fine cracks that will bring the whole thing crumbling down. To stand as witness to all the missed chances that might have changed it all.
The surprise of “Transcendence,” the latest cinematic venture into the dangers of artificial intelligence, is that the movie aims to be a tragedy rather than the thriller the trailers painted it to be. The writer and director open with the ending of the story, the broken shambling aftermath, and focus their energies on tracing how blind, all-consuming love brought good people to this place. Despite an apocalyptic view of the power of technology, it’s far more heartbreaking than it is frightening.
The movie begins with Johnny Depp and Rebecca Hall as Will and Evelyn Caster, a pair of deeply-in-love scientists working on an artificial intelligence program. She dreams of technology changing the world, while he mostly dreams about the science and her. Soon, however, their world is shattered when a group of anti-technology terrorists condemn Will to a painful death. He wants to spend his last few weeks with Evelyn, but she becomes obsessed with artificial intelligence technology that will let him live on in the data stream.
From there, the story spirals outward toward the bitter end along an almost lyrical path, full of quiet beautiful moments and terrible decisions that seem wise in the moment they’re made. The technological underpinnings seem reasonably sound for a genre that regularly throws around things like warp drive and time travel, and the movie sees some chilling possibilities in nanotechnology and networking that did make me shudder a bit. The terrorists are, in their own way, equally chilling.
But in “Transcendence,” the real engine of both creation and destruction lies squarely in the love that one human heart can feel for another. Paul Bettany, as fellow scientist Max Waters, goes against his own deeply held beliefs out of his love for two of his closest friends before turning against those same friends in an attempt to save them. Even as the things he does grows more monstrous, Depp’s AI personality seems powerfully bound to the wife he keeps close.
It’s Hall, however, who serves as the movie’s true center. Her love for her husband consumes her more than the science ever did, her incredibly expressive face reflecting every shade of desperation, heartbreak and hope her character goes through. When she begins to doubt her earlier blind faith, wondering if the machine that wears her husband’s face is really her husband at all, her face reflects the pain of that struggle long before the dialogue does.
Every threat of destruction and hope of salvation offered by the movie are wrapped up squarely in the feelings these three have for each other. Technology may be the fear that drives the movie’s terrorists from their beds, but it’s love that ends up breaking the world. In the end, there’s no more potent tragedy than that.
To check out Dan Metcalf's review of Transcendence, click here.