The Oscar-winner cinematographer Wally Pfister’s directorial debut, Transcendence unites Johnny Depp and Paul Bettany for the second time after The Tourist. While Cillian Murphy and the voice of reason, Morgan Freeman have small parts in the motion picture; Rebecca Hall plays the woman who changes the rules of the game. In this case the game is the way we live and perceive the life, and what Casters (Depp and Hall) are trying to do is to take it to the next level.
Is there a soul? If so, where does it reside?
Transcendence tells the story of people who have revolutionary yet contradictory ideas about human nature and its future. While a certain group of successful scientists make experiments and research about artificial intelligence (AI) and self-awareness of one’s self; another group revolts against the widely spread technology and the idea of AI. This opposition becomes chaotic when the latter attacks and kills almost every scientist working on ai. One of them happens to be Will Caster (Depp), but unlike others’ case, what kills him makes him stronger.
Transcendence is a movie which asks important questions not only about artificial intelligence but also about humanity. The biggest ones are asked in the beginning of the movie by Will Caster himself: “What is the nature of consciousness?”and “Is there a soul? If so, where does it reside?” Throughout the movie, theories follow each other. After Will’s death, they succeed to “bring his mind back to life” with the help of an AI (PINN) Casters have created. But the doubt is always there. The characters cannot be sure whether what they see is truly Will Caster or a machine. When Joseph (Freeman) talks about PINN, he mentions how she is not familiar with the notion “loyalty”. When, in the end, Will chooses to “die” with Evelyn rather than being the ultimate power; it is revealed that it has been Will all along. But till that moment, they cannot be sure, because they still do not know what makes us who we are. Is it the mind, the memory, the soul or all of them at once?
A theory about humans comes from Kate Mara’s anti-AI character Bree. When Bree makes a “transcended” man a human again, she does it by making him mortal. So another question pops up in our mind: Does being a human mean having a life depending on certain needs such as feeding ourselves, sleeping, having a limited capacity to understand and to perform and being able to die? Do restrictions make us human?
Transcendence asks the question Mary Shelley has once asked: Who is the monster in the story? Is it Frankenstein or his creature? What did Will do to become the enemy? He did not ask to be killed. He did not come up with the idea of duplicating his mind. Most importantly, he did not hurt anyone. Throughout the movie, the scientists say that the reason why people are against technology is that people are afraid of what they do not understand. This time, everyone – scientists included – becomes terrified because they do not know a way to fight against an endless power.
So if it is not Will, then who is the one people should have been afraid of? Transcendence leaves a Clockwork Orange effect on the audience with its mind-tricking scenario. Who should be blamed: The protagonist, the antagonists, society, the system, everyone or no one? The victim becomes the villain while the villain becomes the hero. Will, the man everybody has felt sorry for is now the ultimate threat, and the solution will come from the ones who have caused Will’s death and have achieved the transformation of his mind. Also by doing this, the movie shows the irony of the situation and the hypocrisy of humans because to end the highly-developed technology, they use science and technology itself.
Humankind affects the world and itself within its capacity. What Will does is the same thing. The only difference is that, like he has said earlier in the motion picture, a super intelligence would be much more powerful than the combined intellect of the smartest people. While Will wants simple things such as to evolve, to learn, to discover, and to help; his aim is seen rather a danger since his potential has no limits. He did not want to control the world but to heal it; to transcend it.
While Transcendence is basically a sci-fi movie full of philosophical questions, the key element which forms the shape of the movie is the love between Will and Evelyn Caster (Hall). When Will was about to die, he was mostly worried about missing his wife. Even though it looks like it is Will who is doing everything; in fact it is Evelyn who is in charge. Will does everything for her. As seen in the beginning of the movie and later on reminded by Bettany’s Max; it was Evelyn who wanted to change the world, not Will.
When Will physically dies, Casters do not get a chance to say goodbye to each other. Evelyn does not say goodbye to him when she was about to shut the system down either. Casters never give up; in the end they only realize that humans are not ready to transcend themselves. For Casters, it has always been about staying together, and that is what they do: They find a way to never say goodbye to each other; to be together, forever.
So the question remains the same: What is Will Caster? The villain or the victim? A soul or a mind? And is there a difference between them?