After two prefatory posts on the wider context of responses to the movie (here and here), we can now get on with the actual review of Transcendence. This will be on the long side because I'll be exploring many of the ideas that the movie brings up, in addition to reviewing the movie itself.
There will be some plot spoilers, but they will help with the larger goal here — to reframe your expectations so that, if you decide to see the movie, you won't feel like it was a bait-and-switch, and can simply enjoy the movie for what it is. It is not an action-driven, galactic-stakes showdown between a mad scientist and the forces of humanity, but rather a human-scale character study of the central players and their motives that might push us over the brink toward a strange, untested technology and way of life.
Let's make it clear at the outset: Johnny Depp is not the star or protagonist, and was only billed that way to "open" the movie — to provide a sure thing that would draw in audiences on opening weekend (and that didn't work very well).
From the outset he is shown to be a man of inaction, who prefers to avoid the limelight and toil away on mathematical proofs that only three people in the world will ever read. When he is roped into addressing an audience during a TED Talk-style fundraiser by his wife, he makes it clear that he finds it boring or besides the point to ponder the whole "how is this stuff going to be used?" side of things. He is a hardcore systematizer who only wants to understand how machines work, and how a sentient machine might work. It is pure research, not applications, that motivate him.
When he begins dying, it is not his idea to upload his consciousness to a computer, let alone to the internet. That was his wife's choice, once more, and he goes along with her plan, once more.
Thus it is Evelyn, the idealistic, starstruck, save-the-world wife who is the film's protagonist. She is the one who prods her husband's project toward applications that will heal the world. She is the one who brings up the idea of uploading his consciousness to a computer, the one who blithely rationalizes away any objections to it — it's no different from uploading an mp3 file to your iPod — the one who forcefully pushes the plan forward, who is the most vehement about the cyber-consciousness being "him" rather than him-plus-something-else or no-longer-him, the one who supervises and executes the plan to buy up a small town in order to build their underground headquarters and above-ground solar power array, the one who grapples with the rightness of her beliefs and the consequences of her actions, and who after deciding that she has done wrong, volunteers to become infected with a computer virus so that she can pass it on to the cyber-consciousness and disable it, atoning for her sins.
And unlike her husband, Evelyn is portrayed as an emotional and ambitious creature throughout the movie. Y'know, the kind of person who makes the major choices that steer the direction of the narrative.
I was surprised and fascinated by this inversion of the standard tropes of the mad scientist and wet-blanket wife. It's not the monomaniacal mad scientist who's going to bring about the apocalypse, who's going to use it for world domination, and so on. And it's not his wife who will continually nag him away from his work and warn him against the dangers of melding man and machine. And it's not even the absentminded professor whose gizmo-obsessed short-sightedness will lead him right over the edge of the cliff and pull the rest of the world along with him. Nor will it occur as the culmination of a deliberate plan that has been in the works for some time.
Rather, a spur-of-the-moment decision will be made under pressure — either upload Will Caster's consciousness, or he dies for good in a few weeks. The scientist is just going along with what seems like the only plan that allows for his basic self-preservation, and is not doing so eagerly or as a stepping stone toward some larger self-aggrandizing goal. The person who comes up with the idea and advocates the most strongly for it will be an emotional creature with deep personal biases — she is desperate to find some way to keep her husband alive, both because she adores him as a husband but also because his research holds the key to her ambition of healing the world.
Naturally, then, she will prove to be the greatest obstacle for the parties that want the cyber-consciousness shut down, who fear what it might do if left to its own whims and wielding such power. What they consider prudence would kill off not only her husband but all hope of realizing her heal-the-world ambitions.
We've seen such overly protective behavior before among female characters who have created a monster, but typically they are mothers who produce monstrous sons, yet who are still governed by Mama Bear protectiveness against the forces of good who want their sons dead. Now we get to see the other dark side of womanly devotion — covering for not just her husband, but a husband whom she has created. Undoing him would be more than unfaithful: it would be an admission that she made the wrong decisions during her creation of him.
Throughout the film, Rebecca Hall plays Evelyn sympathetically, rather than as a caricature of the devoted wife. This natural approach convinces the audience that any loving woman could find herself in her position, and makes the story all the more disturbing on reflection.
As for Evelyn's accomplice, her husband, many reviewers have complained about how flat and unemotional Depp's performance was. Like, what were they expecting for the character of arch-computer geek — Boy George? Once it's clear that he's not a power-hungry, resentful, or malevolent mad scientist, but who says he just wants to understand machine consciousness (NERD!), you should not expect emotion. You ought to expect a flat delivery from a recluse. Maybe they thought he should at least behave like an animated paranoid such as Ted Kaczynski, but that would be confusing him — the tunneling-away researcher — with the technophobic terrorist group that assassinates him.
The reviewers wanted someone more charismatic like Leonardo DiCaprio's character from Inception, but while that makes for greater drama, it takes away from plausibility. Nothing wrong with that if the tone is more what-if ("willing suspension of disbelief"), but when the tone is speculating on where current trends are taking us, it's better to favor what is plausible. And a charismatic computer nerd is not easy to swallow. In real life, it probably would be someone more like the nerd's emotional, ambitious, do-gooder wife who would make a snap decision to fuse man and machine, if it served her greater vision. The tunneling researcher has no grand vision — he just wants to be left alone to tinker with his ideas.
The husband's flat monotone also makes for a more interesting approach to the narrative of man transforming into machine. Like, what if he's 90% robotic already? And what if the rest of society is still about 80% robotic itself, more comfortable plugging their brains into their digital online devices than taking part in human activities? We're not exactly crossing the Rubicon anymore. Would uploading our consciousness to a computer be like a frog that is slowly boiled alive? For folks who are as flat and monotone as we are today, it just might.
Ultimately the inactive husband redeems himself by choosing to upload the virus from his wife, who in doing so is atoning for her own sins. Up until the end, though, it is not clear how much of the cyber-consciousness is the original Will Caster and how much is the computer intelligence already installed on the machine. This is another reason why Depp's flat delivery works so well — if he had been emotional as a flesh-and-blood human being, it would have been obvious that the monotone cyber-consciousness was the machine rather than him. A flat delivery in both stages leaves it more ambiguous, keeps us guessing about the cyber-thingie's true nature, and leaves us with a more disturbed feeling from the uncertainty of it, lying in the "uncanny valley."
But choosing to bring about his own downfall is presumably something that only a human consciousness would do, proving that at least some of the original person was still in there the whole time. And true to his original personality, he does not plan out the computer virus idea and set about achieving his goal. He just goes along with what he believes is the wise plan of action thought up and advocated for by his emotional wife.
As far as I know, this imagination of who the players will be, and what motives will drive them, is original in the heavily colonized niche of "when man and machine first become hybrid." At least from the examples that someone who isn't obsessed with the genre would be familiar with. It is a refreshing and stimulating approach that was unfortunately disguised in the ad campaign by the typical tropes about mad scientists and societal annihilation.
Reviewers should have kept a more open mind, though, once it was clear who the protagonist was and what her motives were, within the first 15-20 minutes of the movie. "Hoodwinked by yet another ad campaign — why do we continue to believe them?" should have been their response. That was just to draw in audiences who want more of the same junk, rather than take a chance on a totally new approach to man-meets-machine. I don't mind if a smart and original set of ideas has to sneak in through a Trojan Horse ad campaign about evil scientists, if we couldn't enjoy it at all otherwise.