When I first saw a trailer for the movie Transcendence (IMDB/Wikipedia), I thought to myself that the premise was somewhat interesting but the actual plot looked mundane. In other words, I suspected it would be like The Purge (IMDB/Wikipedia). The premise of whether or not a man’s consciousness should be digitized onto a computers and then expanded onto the internet is the sort of sci-fi philosophical conundrum that would pique my curiosity. Unfortunately, the trailer looked like a creepy Johnny Depp just menacing his former wife and then the rest of humanity. Instead of being a movie that would make think, it’d just be a disappointing techno-thriller.
When critics panned the movie in reviews, I became even less inclined to watch it. I figured my reservations were now reinforced by other people’s experiences, and I would now be justified in passing on seeing the film entirely.
When I had the opportunity to buy movie tickets at a discount and this was the only movie I could watch that I had any interest in and hadn’t already seen, I went ahead and saw the film.
It’s hard to say whether or not my lowered expectations are influencing my current impression of the film. Many critics accused the movie of underdelivering on its premise and being plodding. I came out of the theater thinking the movie delivered on its promise more than I expected and didn’t recall any particularly plodding moments. There were perhaps some plot holes, some “well, why doesn’t this happen if that can”, but the bulk of any dissatisfaction I had was with the experience of watching the movie at this particular cinema, the Shanghai Bona Insun International Cineplex (上海博纳银兴国际影城) at IMAGO (我格广场). I’m not sure if it is the 3D technology they use or if they are not running their projector lamp at full brightness but whatever it is, the image comes across as being unpleasantly dark and dim, to the point where you feel there are details on the screen that you should be able to see but can’t. I had the same experience when I watched Pacific Rim at this cinema and I had previously vowed never to return as a result.
Were it not for those discounted tickets…
But this isn’t a movie theater review so back to the movie.
WARNING: SPOILERS BELOW
Once Will Caster’s consciousness is copied onto a computer and then expands across the entire internet, the movie is all about whether or not supercomputer Will is actually the same human Will or just a dehumanized simulacrum, with his intellect and mannerisms or idiosyncrasies but devoid of any of his actual morality and conscience. We see Will making one scientific breakthrough after another but all the while the audience is keenly aware of a foreboding that all these advancements are leading to things frightening, and that “transcended” Will may very well be a cold intelligence eager for more power and eventually world domination. This suggestion is most poignantly made when Jarvis explains to Evelyn how Will is spreading his nanobots around the world through rain water, allowing him to control everything, and tells her that Will never wanted to change the world; only she did. So if human Will wouldn’t do this, then why is transcended Will doing this if not because “it” isn’t actually Will as Evelyn had thus far believed?
At the end of the movie, transcended Will uploads the dying Evelyn knowing that her body carries a virus that will destroy “him” and all copies of him everywhere including his self-replicating nanobots. Him doing so is meant to demonstrate that computer Will really is Will, that he knows right from wrong, that he’s willing to sacrifice himself and all his power. There’s a montage where Will, in a voiceover, explains to Evelyn that his nanobots were all about healing the planet, about cleaning air pollution and regrowing forests, something she believed their work could accomplish, as shown in a flashback to her speech at Berkeley earlier in the film. He was doing all of this for her.
Then, a water droplet falls onto a dead sunflower in the backyard of their old home first shown at the beginning of the movie, and it is revived, blooming in bright yellow, just as the transcended Will Caster’s nanobots had previously done everything from instantly healing wounds to rebuilding destroyed solar panels. In the very last scene where Max revisits Will and Evelyn’s old home and sees these living sunflowers among a house overgrown with dead weeds, he notices a drop of water from fall into a puddle that then shimmers and sparkles.
After leaving the theater and until about 15 minutes later eating dinner, I had some sense that this meant that some part of Will or some of his nanobots had survived the virus-induced blackout that should’ve destroyed him. I was thinking the reviving and blooming sunflower was some sort of symbolism for the endurance of the love between Will and Evelyn, that it survives.
Then it suddenly came together for me and I realized it I wasn’t supposed to make assumptions about what the reviving sunflower and shimmering puddle were supposed to “symbolize”, because the movie had actually spelled out what had happened.
As Will was cradling Evelyn after uploading the virus that will soon kill them both, he had told her to think of their garden. I had dismissed these as words of comfort as the end nears, reminding her of when they were both happy together, but this was actually foreshadowing where the two might survive the virus and be together.
Then I suddenly remembered the copper shielding Will had stapled over that very area of their backyard to block cell phone signals near the beginning of the movie.
And my mind was blown. The virus would spread and kill every nanobot of Will’s except any here, because once the droplet of water containing a nanobot with both Will and now Evelyn’s consciousness fell through the copper mesh shielding (down onto the dead sunflower), the subsequently spreading virus couldn’t be communicated to it (them?) through any electronic signals. It was as if they narrowly escaped, together.
The virus ran its course across the world’s computer systems and networks and a blackout ensued. Computer technology is more or less gone, similar to the premise of Revolution (Wikipedia). But there, in that backyard, was both Will and Evelyn still “alive” or “existing” in some form, as well as the possibility of fixing, well, everything.
This was rather poetic. You can call me slow or criticize the movie for not making this immediately clear to the viewer, but I swear I put this together before reading the plot on Wikipedia where someone has spelled the same thing out. Suddenly realizing how these various bits actually tied neatly together was satisfying and why I can now say the movie was quite enjoyable.