Sunday, April 20, 2014

“Transcendence” – Skynet, The Matrix, and…Johnny Depp?

When it comes to artificial intelligence (AI) in movies and television, the list goes on and on. Everyone has a favorite, whether it’s an individual like Data or the Replicants, or a larger entity such as the Borg or Skynet. More often than not, these AI’s are depicted as evil, homicidal, and even genocidal, as the poor humans try to fight back against their creations lest they be exterminated. From H.A.L. to the Cylons to whatever was running the Matrix, there is no shortage of machines trying to kill humans in small or large quantities in cinema. Sometimes the explanations are logical (farming humans for energy) and sometimes they aren’t (“…they tried to pull the plug”). But, with every depiction of the evil AI, people become more and more afraid that one day the machines really will turn on us and that’s how we end up with idiotic policies such as those banning stem cells, cloning, and eventually, nuclear power plants. Luckily, movies like Transcedence come along every now and then, challenging people to actually use their brains and think about how alarmist we tend to be.

The first thing the movie is going to do is tell you that the end of the movie doesn’t really matter by showing you the end of the movie. And, it’s not subtle either. I spent much of the movie slightly annoyed that we knew how it would end and it took me a night of sleeping on it to realize that this wasn’t as bad as I thought. In fact, I think they did it specifically to make the audience watch the movie from a completely different viewpoint – instead of wondering whether the AI would win or lose, we wonder what the deeper message of the movie is supposed to be.

Dr. Will Caster (Johnny Depp) is one of the leading minds in developing AI and is giving a talk on his work when a techno-terrorist group perpetrates a series of attacks on AI labs and leading minds, including Caster. Caster is shot with radioactive bullets and only has a few weeks to live. Refusing to let him go, his wife, Evelyn (Rebecca Hall), with the help of their best friend, Max (Paul Bettany), uploads his consciousness into their most advanced AI computer. When Will asks to be put on the network, Max balks and Evelyn kicks him out. At the same time, the terrorists, led by Bree (Kate Mara) arrive too late to stop Evelyn. They kidnap Max and after virtually no persuasion, he joins their cause to stop Will. Stop Will from doing what exactly, you ask? Well, that’s where the movie kind of breaks apart.

Fast forward two years and Will and Evelyn have purchased a small town in the middle of nowhere and built a sprawling underground research complex and home. Will has been advancing technologies for the better of mankind, and Evelyn has been overseeing the research and managing the complex. By this time, the terrorists have set up a base near the complex and have convinced the military and Morgan Freeman to help them stop Will and Evelyn. Yes, you read that right – Morgan Freeman. He doesn’t do anything, but whichever side Morgan Freeman is on must be the side of right. Right?

At this point in the film, Will still has done nothing to elicit the wrath of anyone, including Bree and her followers, yet the film is still trying to convince us that Will must be stopped. Is it because he’s developed nanotechnology capable of healing human tissue; a capability that is demonstrated on people who hear about the miracles and volunteer to be healed of their own personal ailments? Is it because Evelyn is having a bi-technical relationship with a virtual being? Your guess is as good as mine. The film can’t decide which issue is more important – the marital relationship between virtual Will and Evelyn or the illogical fear of people towards technology – and ends up coming short on both.

Because the marital issue is emphasized less often than the technology fear, I think it’s the latter that the writer was more interested in. As I said, Will seems only to be helping humanity, yet Bree is hell-bent on destroying him and stopping the advance of technology. My guess is she watched one too many movies, including The Lawnmower Man, choosing to believe Will was the next coming of Job crossed with Skynet. But why? The film never really explains why she’s so dedicated to the cause, other than her telling an anecdote about a virtual monkey when she was a research assistant. It makes for a contrived conflict rather than a developed one and the film and audience suffer for it.

I don’t want you to think the film is bad, but it’s not really good either. It fails to dig into any issues too deeply and does very little to really develop any characters. Evelyn and Will are given the majority of the screen time and the rest of the actors feel more like set pieces than supporting characters. It feels more like the pilot episode of a TV drama than a complete film. By the end of the film, you’ll have questions, but won’t be terribly interested in the answers. Of course, maybe that’s just what Internet Depp wants you to think.

Rating: Ask for seven dollars back. Ambiguity isn’t worth very much.

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