Director: Wally Pfister
In terms of pure filmmaking, this is a seriously flawed film. The dialogue is often clunking, there is a lack of character development and the storyline is weak. Nonetheless, it is a work which will repay seeing because it deals with the lethally threatening potential of digital technology, threats which will almost certainly become reality within the lifetimes of most people now living.
Will Caster (Johnny Depp) is a scientist specialising in artificial intelligence. He is married to Evelyn (Rebecca Hall) who works in the same field. As the film opens, Caster believes he is close to creating an artificial intelligence that is truly sentient and which he believes will create a technological singularity – the point at which computer technology exceeds the capability of homo sapiens – a state Caster calls Transcendence.
This hope is cut short when Caster is shot by a neo-Luddite group, Revolutionary Independence From Technology (R.I.F.T.), who also carry out attacks on his artificial-intelligence computer laboratories. Caster survives the shot but the bullet is coated with radioactive material for which there is no antidote. The prognosis is that he has about a month to live.
Evelyn refuses to accept his imminent death and, with the help of Caster’s best friend Max (Paul Bettany), arranges to upload Caster’s consciousness, personality, mind – call it what you will – to a quantum computer. Max helps do this, despite the fact that he has grave doubts about the wisdom of the act. His doubts rest on the possibility that Caster’s brain contents will not be uploaded uncorrupted, or that a Caster reduced to a digital form will not be Caster anymore because of the immense change in his environment.
Once uploaded, Caster appears on the computer screen looking and sounding like his real world self, although there is a new coldness about him. He immediately demands to be connected to the Internet. Max sees the profound dangers of this; if Caster is malign, he will be able to copy himself throughout the Internet. Consequently, Max tries to persuade Evelyn not to do it. Evelyn, obsessed with her desire to have Caster in any form, shrugs aside Max’s doubts and throws him out of the laboratory before linking Caster to the Internet where he promptly does just what Max feared and copies himself throughout the virtual world.
The digital Caster is, if not omniscient and omnipotent, a significant way along the road to both, because he now has the capabilities of both human and computer with access to the data and facilities of the entire digital world. He is not malign in the sense that he is consciously malicious or self-serving. Rather, Caster is beset with the sin of those who are sure they know best. His monomaniac desire to make the world a better place is suddenly released from the shackles of his emotions and the practical limitations on implementing his plans which existed when he was merely a man. It is a cliché that with power comes a disregard for anyone else’s opinion, but Caster not only knows better than anyone else, he now has the means to realise his dreams.
Using Evelyn as his instrument in the real world, the virtual Caster makes a fortune rapidly and uses this to take over an isolated desert town called Brightwood. Over the next two years, he develops advanced technologies in the fields of energy, medicine, biology and nanotechnology. His plan is to rid the world of the blight of disease, pollution and ultimately mortality. The problem is Caster intends to do this not only without reference to anyone else but also by using nanotechnology to control humans, so that they are in essence robots.
While all this is going on, forces are gathering to sabotage Caster’s ambitions. Shortly after Max breaks with Evelyn , he is kidnapped by R.I.F.T and eventually agrees to join them to disrupt Caster’s plans. Then the US government, in the form of F.B.I. agent Donald Buchanan (Cillian Murphy) and government scientist Joseph Tagger (Morgan Freeman) unofficially (so they have deniability) join forces with R.I.F.T. in their attempt to thwart Caster.
Evelyn gradually moves from willing and committed collaborator to a frightened and deeply worried woman. The process of disillusionment is completed when she sees that Caster can remotely connect to and control people’s minds. Distraught, Evelyn approaches R.I.F.T who develop a computer virus which will destroy Caster’s source code, killing him and, as a side effect, destroy the technology on which modern society has become recklessly dependent. This happens because the digital Caster is spread throughout the Internet. To destroy him, the Internet has to be destroyed.
Regardless of the technological devastation the virus will create, Evelyn agrees to upload the virus to end whatever it is that Caster has become. But on returning to Brightwood she finds Caster resurrected in biological form, his body having been replicated, presumably, from the digital information stored when his brain contents were uploaded.
Caster is aware that his wife has the virus and intends to destroy him but does not act against her. The F.B.I. and R.I.F.T. attack the Brightwood base, and in the process mortally wound Evelyn. Evelyn persuades Caster to save her by uploading her mind as his mind was uploaded. Caster does this even though he knows it will end him and the Internet. The virus seemingly kills Caster and Evelyn, and technological disaster ensues.
But all is not quite as it seems. Years later, Max visits the Casters’ old garden. The garden is protected by a device called a Faraday Cage. This stops any electrical transmission reaching what is inside the cage. Max notices that a drop of water falling from a sunflower petal instantly cleanses a puddle of oil. The drop contains one of Caster’s nano-particles, which is intact because of the protection afforded by the Faraday cage. Max thinks, logically correctly, that Caster’s and Evelyn’s consciousnesses are contained within the active nano-particles. Perhaps Caster even knew when he wittingly uploaded the virus that there would be copies of Evelyn and himself retained in the nano-particles in their old garden…
Depp’s performance as Caster has received a good deal of criticism on the grounds that it is a flat, emotionless portrayal. This is to miss the nature of the character he inhabits once he exists only in digital form. He is then someone robbed of the kernel of what makes them human. Hence, his performance is exactly what is required.
The rest of the performances range from serviceable in the case of Rebecca Hall to colourless in the case of Paul Bettany, and slight in the case of everyone else simply because there was no space for them to expand their characters.
This could have been a much better film if two issues had been given much more space, namely, the general arguments against incontinent technological advance and the devastating effects which would result from a closing down of the Internet and the ending of connectivity which is not only so much a part of modern everyday life but also vital for the maintenance of necessities such as power stations and large factories.
The R.I.F.T. characters are anaemic and their arguments against technology do not go much beyond the mantra “intelligent machines are bad”. There is no discussion of how human beings may simply fail to survive because they become demoralised by the superior capacity of machines or machines or that intelligent machines will take not only the jobs humans do now but any other jobs which arise. As for the post-virus technological upset, this is barely touched upon.
The strength of the film is that it puts before its audience the possibilities of technology moving beyond the control of human beings and, even more fundamentally damaging, calling into question what it is to be human. The dangers of intelligent machines are straightforward enough – either they replace humans by making them redundant, or they engender in humanity the trait seen in tribal peoples encountering Europeans: the tribal peoples often became terminally demoralised, by the sophistication and scope of European culture with which they were faced.
More fundamentally, until now we have known what a human being is. We are on the brink of losing that happy state. If the human mind could be copied and exist within a computer file there is the potential for immortality. The mind could exist within a robot body or be distributed throughout the Internet (or whatever supersedes it). If the mind can be uploaded to a computer file so could all the data needed to create a digital replica of a person’s body, into which the uploaded mind could be uploaded in turn. If the technology to do that existed, then in principle it should be possible to upload a digitised mind into a body developed from someone else’s uploaded data…. That is not a world I should wish to live in. See Transcendence for its warning of the shape of things to come.
ROBERT HENDERSON is the QR film critic. He blogs at livinginamadhouse.com