It (thankfully) lacks eyeliner, but it also lacks logic.
The good news is Johnny Depp doesn’t wear any mascara or eyeliner in Transcendence.
Now, don’t get me wrong, I’m not disparaging anyone who makes judicious use of a dash of black to make their peepers pop out a little. Heck, I’m not even saying Depp’s obvious love of guyliner is a completely bad thing. After all, Edward Scissorhands and Captain Jack Sparrow just wouldn’t be the same without their raccoon masks. But let’s be honest, his last few turns under the brush haven’t exactly been Depp’s best moments. The Mad Hatter, Barnabas Collins, Tonto… these are not the roles one wants to be remembered by. So, yes, it’s good news that Johnny forsook the silly face paint this time around and chose to rely solely on his acting.
The bad news is somebody forgot to tell the rest of the movie to make wise choices as well. Transcendence is one of those films with a timely premise, good actors, and a strong visual sense that somehow still manages to fall apart by the end thanks to a few missteps.
It’s a shame because the movie starts out pretty strong. Depp plays Dr. Will Caster, a character no-doubt inspired by Google’s resident genius, Ray Kurzweil, the renowned inventor who became the public face of the modern transhumanist movement after serving as the subject of the 2009 documentary Transcendent Man. Like his real life counterpart, Will is a champion of the notion that the limitations of the human biological condition can be overcome through the use of technology. In particular, Will is working on technology that would allow an artificial intelligence to mimic the human brain, the first step in a process that would eventually allow a human mind to be transferred, or “backed up”, to a computer hard drive.
Of course, this is hardly an idea new to Transcendence. Scientists have been speculating about just such a thing ever since the first computer showed up, and science fiction authors jumped on the idea soon after. Mind transference has even become a fairly common trope in sci-fi movies since at least the 1960s (the ridiculous The Creation of the Humanoids) all the way up to the present (the top worldwide grossing film of all time, Avatar). But in the past few years, folks like Kurzweil have started making claims that we’re now getting close to the point where such a process will be feasible.
Obviously, this presents some important ethical considerations for our real world future. If Kurzweil turns out to be correct and scientists somehow develop a process that allows them to make a digital copy of a person’s mind and download it into a synthetic container, just what the heck is it that they are creating? Will it really still be a person or just a machine that thinks it’s a person? Or will it be something new entirely, an omnipresent being capable of things beyond the capacity of us mere humans?
The questions are pretty interesting and Transcendence tackles them head on, at least for a little bit. While at a conference touting his theories, Will is questioned by an audience member as to whether he believes he will be creating a god, to which he responds, “Isn’t that what man has always done?” Satisfied that Will isn’t properly taking into account the potential negative ramifications of his research, the questioner pulls out a gun and mortally wounds the scientist. Simultaneously across the country, similar attacks are carried out at facilities which have been working closely with Will, including the one run by his close friend, Dr. Joseph Tagger, played by Morgan Freeman. (Don’t worry, though. Only The Lego Movie is gutsy enough to kill off Morgan Freeman. He survives.)
Amazingly, to the script’s credit, the anti-tech terrorists in Transcendence are not portrayed as religious fundamentalists, a track I was worried the movie was going to take after hearing Will’s tired atheistic come-back to his questioner. Instead, they’re just folks who paid attention during all of the Terminator movies and came to the conclusion that having a self-aware artificial intelligence with unfettered access to all of the world’s computer systems might not be a good idea.