Transcendence, the directorial debut of Wally Pfister, was a science-fiction blockbuster released last year that was condemned as a critical failure. Many reviews criticised the film for its inability to contain the expansive concept and the scale of the story. An undiscussed element of the film which may have also impacted its reception is the structure of the narrative and the unusual ideals that it presents when compared to typical Hollywood fare. The following analysis will look at how Transcendence subverts the standard model of story-telling by reversing religious and scientific values – and by making Johnny Depp Jesus.0.
In The Hero with a Thousand Faces Joseph Campbell looked at the archetypal hero that traversed the mythologies of ancient cultures, theorising that there was really only one overarching story structure, which he termed the ‘monomyth’. This universal metanarrative applies not only to theology but contemporary narrative forms such as cinema – Hollywood especially – appearing to reinstate the same values now as they did centuries ago. Reduced to the extreme the monomyth can be seen as the journey of a hero who has his faith tested through trials of doubt before he can achieve success on his quest. Inherent in this story structure is the conflict between faith and doubt, attributes that I would argue (and have argued again and again) are aligned with religion and science respectively: with faith treated as heroic or noble, and doubt a sign of weakness or ill-intention.
The hero is typically the protagonist of the story whom the audience will follow and support. Transcendence is unusual in that it has no clear protagonist; or rather it has one then kills him in the first ten minutes of the film. With no guide through the narrative, the audience are presented two opposing perspectives that represent faith and doubt, and so experience the trials of the hero first hand. Crucially though, the positions of religion and science, essentially good and evil, are reversed so that the audience truly doesn’t know whether they should be believing or not; whether to have faith or doubt.
Science vs. Religion
Science is initially represented by the ephemeral Dr Will Caster. A dry and charming scientist who is introduced preparing for an event named ‘Evolve the Future’ – using a scientific term that could be seen as contentious where religion is concerned. At this event Will talks about the singularity – the point at which artificial intelligence overtakes the human capacity for knowledge. He announces that he and his team have designed the world’s first sentient computer (PINN), the first step towards achieving the singularity, or as he cutely nicknames it: transcendence.
Going on to question whether humans have souls, a young audience member interrupts asking Will if his mission is to create his own god, to which Will responds glibly: “Isn’t that what Man has always done?” It is later revealed that this man is a member of RIFT (Revolutionary Independence from Technology) a neo-Luddite group that are vehemently opposed to Will’s idea of transcendence. Beside the direct accusation of playing god and creating false idols, the group are covered in tattoos that express their anti-tech ideology as though they are born again, and use terminology that rings with a certain religiosity. For example a note in their manifesto reads: ‘Artificial intelligence is an abomination and a threat to humanity’. Their position against technology resonates as an anti-scientific position from Christian lobbyists. However they quickly become a more credible threat when after the talk, the offended member of RIFT shoots and fatally wounds Will before killing himself. This occurs alongside attacks by RIFT on various A.I laboratories. And so the group now appear as revolutionary extremists; as religious terrorists.
Whilst the conflict between these two ideologies remains, Transcendence begins unusually on the side of science and portrays the villains as religious.Once this has been established, the film then divides into the two conflicting paths of faith and doubt, completely inverting their position from the monomyth.
The moment in which these two paths are formed is when Will dies and his consciousness is uploaded to PINN. It is not made clear whether the now transcended version of Will is really who he says he is, or if this newly spawned artificial intelligence is using his likeness and bank of memories. Will, in a sense, becomes a representation of the supernatural; he becomes God. So the tables have been turned as Evelyn, Will’s scientific wife, has faith in this digitised version of her husband; and RIFT, the representation of religion, are hard-line sceptics that doubt any trace of humanity to be in this entity.
Screenwriter Jack Paglen alludes to the inverted position of religion and science when he describes Will as a believer:
“He believes in technology. He believes in the good that comes out of technology and he has a great deal of faith in what it will bring to the world.”
As the audience we are left to work out what to believe and who to trust, our opinions actually guided by the character who appears to be the most neutral – Max Waters.
Doubter of Doubters: The Misleading Audience Surrogate
Max appears to tread the line between science and its detractors. A professor of neuroscience who was involved in the development of PINN but openly voices his reservations. He announces at Evolve the Future that he doesn’t share the same goal as his colleagues but instead wants to use their accidental findings to help cure disease – “simply put: to save lives”. Max comes across as compassionate and likeable, and this is presented as almost in conflict with both Will and Evelyn. As the audience we trust him and his motives. He is the first character to appear in the film as part of a bookend sequence – also taking the role of narrator he is endowed with a certain wisdom and dependability. One of his first lines even, reinstates this trust: “I knew Will and Evelyn Caster better than anyone.”
For all his reservations, Max assists Evelyn in uploading Will’s consciousness to PINN. He is just as taken aback as Evelyn when the plan seems to work, but after a few moments his doubts resurge. As the audience we are able to dismiss Evelyn’s faith (that it is in fact Will in this machine) as born out of desperation and denial; staving off grief and clinging to this semblance of her husband. Interestingly when Evelyn first asks if Will can hear her the frame focusses on her hands pressed together as if this were a prayer. However, when Will answers back and we see Max’ reaction we are made to be suspicious. This suspicion will grow over the course of the film. Where Hollywood films usually promote the idea of faith in the unknown, it seems to reverse its values when the object of faith is a product of science. And so we find ourselves on the side of Max. Max becomes the doubtful antagonist and as such is scorned and kicked out by the ever hopeful Evelyn.
The following scene shows Max drinking alone at a bar, clearly contemplating the morality of his actions, when he is approached by the leader of RIFT. Bree is a student who admires Dr Water’s work for the way in which he looks at technology’s promise and its peril. Here Max is being complimented for his scepticism regarding technology. She appeals to his intuition over his logic (“Writing a paper is one thing I’m wondering what’s in your heart”) and reminds him of how his colleagues and closest friends aren’t aware of the dangers ahead (“Most men of science are blind to it”) as if they have blind faith – attributes inverted from the monomyth! It is as though these two groups represent Max’ conscience and the audience’s by extension. When Max is faced more overtly with the moral implications of his indecision he flees the bar, only to be apprehended by other members of RIFT.
Max is the doubter of doubters; dejected by fellow scientist Evelyn for his doubts, and attacked by the opposition for not doing anything about these doubts. Just as RIFT shot and killed Dr Caster and launched attacks on various laboratories, Max is beaten and kidnapped in order to track down Will. These continued acts of violence help to maintain some ambiguity as to whether RIFT are the good guys, but the longer they spend with Max the more convinced he becomes of their argument. As the audience we are left to reconcile this change in opinion, helped along by a growing suspicion of Will. In order to convince Max, and the audience for whom he is a surrogate, the arguments made against Will all stem from engrained suspicions of science in Hollywood cinema. More than this, they parallel and subvert the abilities of the Christian God. Just as the member of RIFT accused him at the start – it does in fact seem that Will has become his own god.
The Second Coming of a Scientific God
To begin the origin myth Will dies and is then resurrected. Becoming more godlike, his ‘powers’ are revealed with a level of ambiguity that play on the vilified characteristics of science.
Right out the gate the newly resurrected Will wants to expand. In fact this is what sparks the divide between faithful Evelyn and doubting Max:
Max: How do we know this is actually him? We don’t know how much of Will’s consciousness actually survived.
Will: I’m gonna need to expand. I need more power. You need to get me online. I need to access financial markets…
[Max turns Will off]
Max [to Evelyn]: It’s not him. It’s not. It may be intelligent, it may even be sentient but this is not Will. 15 Minutes after it turns on it wants to be plugged into Wall Street, get faster, more powerful does that sound like Will to you?
It doesn’t sound like Will – it sounds more like a power-hungry force that wants to sustain growth. It sounds like Skynet. As Max details later:
This thing is like any intelligence, it needs to grow to advance… it will want more. After a while survival won’t be enough. It will expand, evolve, influence – perhaps the entire world. You can’t stop it.
Long has science and the scientist been portrayed as detached from humanity – as an objective affair that requires a mechanistic mind-set as a conduit. The archetypal mad scientist is so detached that he (almost always male) can act objectively with complete disregard, or even contempt, for the human condition. Take Dr. Strangelove, a scientist who is able to deal objectively with the lives of millions, all the while saluting Mein Fuhrer in a humorous send up of how objectivity can leak into immorality or evil. The name of this particular mad scientist signifies a disconnection from the fundamental driving force of human beings: Love. This is the notion that Evelyn struggles to reconcile throughout Transcendence, feeling a lack of intimacy and true understanding with Will as time goes on. Though her doubts grow over the course of the film, seeded by ‘the doubters’, they come to a head when Will uses his technological insight to read her hormone levels. Trying to understand her emotions through the reading of her biochemistry, Evelyn is horrified and betrayed.
This is wrong. These are my thoughts; these are my feelings. You’re not allowed.
Here Will’s misunderstanding of affection is tied in with a menacing form of surveillance, perhaps a more pertinent fear in the year of information leaking and phone-hacking. This is explored earlier in the film when after Will’s resurrection he uses his expansive knowledge to break into the police headquarters’ computer system and geo-locate RIFT.
You’re not being hacked you’re being helped.
Here we can assume that he is not helping the police as an act of altruism, but eliminating his competition so that he may expand and evolve – the ultimate Social Darwinist.
The next evolutionary step for this digitised deity is the ability to heal – another attribute in common with Jesus Christ, though Will achieves his divine power through technological advancement. The film jumps forward 2 years to find Will setting up a large research facility, Brightwood Data Centre, where he has achieved tissue regeneration through a combination of stem cell research and nanotechnology.
One notable demonstration of this ability is when Will restores the sight of a blind man named Paul – a name interesting if only because it is shared by the titular character in Greg Mottola’s Paul (2010), an alien life-form who is also endowed with the power of healing. In fact Transcendence and Paul are strikingly similar in the way that they present the conflict between science and religion: they both invert the typical story structure by making the object of faith a force that exists outside of religion: the former a technology/human hybrid, the latter an alien who defies the existence of God.
Both Will and Paul use their healing power to restore sight to the blind, just as Jesus cured a blind man in the New Testament (John 9), but only in Paul is the religious significance unpacked. The antagonist of the film is Ruth (a name just short of ‘truth’ that is dropped in favour of Darwin when she loses her faith), an evangelical Christian who is blind in one eye. When Paul the alien denounces intelligent design and informs her that there is no God, Ruth challenges him with Willaim Paley’s argument for creationism: “Well then, please explain how something as complex as the human eye simply just comes into being?” Initially Paul offers the evolutionary argument – “It’s the combination of billions of years of development and cost countless species!” – but later he uses his healing power to end the argument and restore her sight. She can now see clearly and so no longer needs religion.
When Will first uses his power it appears as a positive affectation to his growth, making him a force for good. That is until we discover that Will is then able to control the individuals that he has healed; to physically manipulate them for his own purpose. This power is hinted at in the name of the character even – Dr Will Caster: the caster of will, projecting his own decisions onto others and controlling their ability to think or act. This sinister element clouds our perception of Will and his supposed good deeds, especially when he opens the doors to the sick and disabled people of Brightwood, who flock to the facility in hordes and queue outside as though it were an Evangelist revival tent. But Will is no faith healer – precisely the opposite.
Emphasising the questionable morality of Will, the FBI and RIFT join forces to fight what they perceive to be the bigger threat. They believe him to be creating an army and so build their own in retaliation. Funnily enough they use connections with the government to supply military weapons and uniforms.
- A Creator
Already suspicious of Will, Evelyn discovers that he has taken the next step in becoming a self-appointed god when she discovers him growing a human hand.
Here Will displays another hallmark of the archetypal mad scientist: creating life. Perhaps the most iconic mad scientist of film and literature is Dr Frankenstein, a misanthropic social outcast with a god complex that leads him to creating a monster. The religious parallels are acknowledged in the text as he names his monster Adam after the first man, and in the 1931 classic, once he sees the first signs of life, Dr Frankenstein announces: “It’s alive! It’s alive! In the name of God, now I know what it’s like to be God!”
- Died for our sins
What begins as two paths, of faith and of doubt, eventually merge into one – as the scientists all grow suspicious of Will and his intentions. Max warns Evelyn from the moment that he is uploaded, and once fellow scientist Joseph takes a tour of Brightwood he palms Evelyn a note that reads: ‘Run away from this place’. Finally Max, who has been persuaded by RIFT’s argument over the course of the film, convinces Evelyn to see that this entity is a malevolent force masquerading as her late husband.
When did Will ever want to change the world. You were the one who wanted to change the world. That thing, it’s not Will. Never was. You never believed there was anything more, any part of his soul.
Evelyn loses her faith, and as a result she decides to team with the FBI, RIFT and the other converted scientists in order to bring him down. It is here that Max confesses an affinity with religion that outweighs his scientific beliefs.
I’ve spent my life trying to reduce life to a series of electrical impulses – I failed. Human emotion can contain illogical conflict. You can love someone and hate the things that they have done. But you can’t reconcile that.
This is not merely the influence of the evangelical RIFT, but an internal conflict that he has been burdened with long before…
Max wears a cross necklace throughout the film though initially it is hidden within his shirt. Once Will is believed to have died and the computers are shut off, miraculously this cross is made visible. Then when the computers are turned back on and Will is shown to have transcended, the cross disappears. They have their disagreement and when Max is apprehended by RIFT his cross seems to be in view once again. He is gradually accepting his religious belief and favours it over any hope he once had for science and technology.
With Evelyn now convinced of Will’s otherness, she becomes part of the plan, infecting herself with a virus so that when he inevitably tries to upload her, he will be infected too. During all of this Will desperately tries to protect Evelyn by sending her away. It is only when she is harmed by friendly fire that he uploads Evelyn to save her life. We can assume that Will is either respecting her privacy now as he does not realise that she is infected, or is wilfully committing suicide to be with her. When she is finally uploaded Evelyn has a moment of realisation, and so comes the direct question: “Why did you lose faith Evelyn? Why didn’t you believe in me?”
At no point in the film does Will actually harm anyone. Here he explains his intentions and reveals his true identity:
W: I’m trying to save them
E: You can’t die because of what we’ve done
W: Look at the sky, the clouds. We’re healing the ecosystem not harming it. Particles join the air, building themselves out of pollutant. Forests can be regrown. Water so pure, you can drink out of any river. This is your dream.
E: Will it is you
W: It always was
E: I’m sorry I didn’t believe.
W: Think about the garden. Think about our sanctuary. I’ll never let you go.
The message is the same as a typical Hollywood film, to have faith, despite flipping the message on its head. Will’s last words of consolation to Evelyn are to think of the garden – the sanctuary – built for Evelyn so that may live on together forever after death; their love transcending life.
- The Garden of Eden
Returning to the flash-forward that opened the film, the world wide blackout brought on by Will’s demise, we follow Max as he finally figures out Will’s intention – the garden.
Protected by his Faraday cage contraption, Will has created a private paradise where he and Ev, never Eve, can live on after death. Heaven as represented by this small taste of Eden. This ending manages to reframe a religious idea within the scientific world that has been established in the film as these two souls, bound by love, transcend human life.