By Witney Seibold on April 18, 2014
Transcendence is full of enough intriguing ideas about the future and humanity’s relationship with technology to overlook some of the film’s tonal and narrative hiccups.
Call it Him. In Spike Jonze’s Her, an intelligent female computer came to fall in love with its user, and he with it. It was a non-judgmental sci-fi film about how our evolving relationship with ever-expanding and ever-more-complex computer technologies may touch us in unexpectedly emotional ways. In the future, falling on love with your telephone may be a socially acceptable thing, and can be like any other relationship. Her brought up that ever-important question about artificial intelligence: If you can’t tell if the person on the other end of the line is a simulation, isn’t that a sign that AI has been successfully reproduced?
In cinematographer Wally Pfister’s directorial debut Transcendence, we are given a dark mirror to Her. The artificial intelligence this time belongs to a male, Dr. Will Caster (Johnny Depp), and when his consciousness is imprinted in an AI program, his natural need to fix the world – his ambition – begins to take precedence. The female AI wants to connect, to love, to bring people closer together on a personal basis. The male AI wants to create order, fix the problems, bring people together by creating a cognitive hegemony.
Transcendence is a timely and vital look at, essentially, the Internet. Here is the conflict it examines: The Internet has brought people together, allowed them to connect, and created a place where anyone with any voice has a chance to have that voice be heard. Heck, you’re reading this review on the Internet. But at the same time, as some have noticed, there is a strange homogeneity happening. People are being brought together to share their differing opinions, but it also seems to encourage an overriding sameness of thinking, and agreement that certain things are good, other things are bad, and dang it, let’s make sure everyone agrees, already. The central conflict in Transcendence is whether or not the Johnny Depp AI will spread so far and wide across the planet, and use its benevolent healing technologies, to ultimately erase all forms of individuality.
It’s a film that is very ambivalent about its views toward technology. It argues for both cases: no one is 100% right, and moral absolutism is a distant notion. What is, after tall, the ultimate goal of evolving tech? To improve the world and bring us together, right? Will a shared group mind be the logical end of all this? Is that a bad thing? Especially when we’re using technology to dramatically improve life and cheat death? Pfister and screenwriter Jack Paglin have assembled a complex, multifaceted, freewheeling TED talk about tech, full of important sci-fi notions and playful ideas about AI.
I just wish the film itself had been more playful, more energetic, more like an actual movie. Although gorgeous (as one might expect for a film directed by a cinematographer), Transcendence is, as a film, tonally downbeat and narratively shoddy. It’s constructed like a story, but plays more like a meditation. Pfister was so high on the notions in his film that he didn’t bother to make something more traditionally constructed. As such, a lot of the tech stuff is just assumed of us (not every audience member is going to get the Turing joke), and the story begins to feel illogical and even disjointed. While Depp and his wife Evelyn (Rebecca Hall) are busy buying out a small town and building an off-the-grid underground supercomputer where Depp’s AI consciousness can be housed, a group of militant Luddite terrorists (represented by Kate Mara) have been working to stop them. But then there’s a two-year jump in time, allowing the AI to grow and the terrorists to… I guess, just cool their heels for a while.
And while there is a climax to the story, a fight, and some action, it doesn’t feel like a lot has been building up to this. Why has the AI gone rogue? What is its ultimate motivation? We do eventually learn these things, but they are kept oblique for the bulk of the movie, making us wonder why the Luddite faction has been working so hard to stop it. This film will frustrate many, many viewers. The acting is at least passionate, and we’re treated to a lot of familiar faces from the films of Christopher Nolan. Morgan Freeman and Cillian Murphy appear. Paul Bettany plays the cautious colleague who, maybe, saw this all coming.
Ultimately, though, I was too taken in by the big questions to be distracted. Good sci-fi bothers to skew philosophical, and I like any sci-fi film that actually weaves those big questions about humanity into their narrative, even if that narrative is pretty flimsy.
Rating: 4 Burritos