Review: Transcendence

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In a time where every passing month yields a new technological breakthrough, the narrative of man’s eventual submission to his own machinations gains further traction. The tools that we create begin to govern our lives more than we are willing to collectively acknowledge. At what point is their dominance complete? Transcendence is certainly not the first fictional work to pose this question, as many other films and works of literature have cautioned against technology’s dangers. Indeed, in its tale of artificial intelligence gone awry, Transcendence works well enough as escapist entertainment, but where thematic ideas are present, it labors for legitimate insight.

Dr. Will Caster (Johnny Depp) is among the leading minds in the scientific field of artificial intelligence. Working with his wife Evelyn (Rebecca Hall) and colleague Max (Paul Bettany) in Berkeley, Will is on the cusp of creating an intelligence that is completely self aware. After giving a lecture about the potential breakthroughs on the horizon, he is unsuspectingly shot by an assassin whose loyalties lie with RIFT, a cyber terrorist organization hell bent on liberating man from technological dependence. Simultaneous to this attack, RIFT infiltrates dozens of AI labs across the country, compromising decades of research. Will’s lab is the only one that remains, and while he survived with a graze to his chest, the bullet was laced with radiation poisoning, only giving him weeks to live. It is here that a radical idea comes into play, in which Evelyn endeavors to upload Will’s consciousness to their existing artificial intelligence. A former colleague had previously succeeded in uploading the consciousness of a monkey, so the same might be possible with a human. Will is hooked up and day by day, electrical signals from his brain are sent into the AI cores. Finally, his body expires, but soon enough, he becomes digitally sentient. At first, the survival of Will’s consciousness is a miracle, yet whether this AI is truly the same as the man is called into question. As the AI’s need for power grows, the greater a threat it becomes.

While the extent of AI is taken to preposterous lengths, there’s enough in Transcendence to engage on a superficial level. In what may be his least eccentric performance in a decade, Johnny Depp is pretty serviceable, and his regular monotone voice makes a good fit for his digitally altered self, keen on blurring the line between his own mind and that of the AI. As the emotional anchor of Transcendence, Rebecca Hall is quite affecting, blinded by the love for the man she lost, and succumbing to the AI’s influence. The remainder of the ensemble is essentially without liabilities, although Kate Mara’s turn as the leader of rift is underwhelming for script reasons rather than her own talents. The biggest overall problem in Transcendence is its own script. The overall arc of how Will Caster’s AI develops is actually pretty interesting  if one can disregard some of the looniness behind it. What is harder to forgive are the overall leaps in logic and narrative plot holes that the film fails to address. While individual scenes compel in their own way, the conveniences attributed to the transitions between them make the story less believable. The third act in particular takes a turn into straight action territory, which can be fun in the moment, but underwhelming in retrospect.

As the directorial debut of longtime Christopher Nolan cinematographer Wally Pfister, Transcendence is handsomely lensed, with clean compositions and warm glows in domestic locales reminiscent of his efforts on Memento and Inception. That warmth dissipates as the plot progresses and we’re introduced to a sterile facility where Will’s AI does its superhuman work. In its thematic pursuits it’s valid to examine an early scene where the human Will speaks to an audience about the benefits of AI. In the midst of his lecture, Will is asked by the man who would later shoot him whether he intends on creating his own God. Backlit with an angelic halo around his head, this question is at the core of Transcendence. Dr. Caster makes the case that an AI can make the world a better place, but the dark reality is that it may come at the cost of human autonomy. The development of this age old idea comes at the progression of the plot, which then only offers a way out in what comes off more as a cheat than a solution. Transcendence is still a competent and occasionally engaging science fiction adventure, but its surface pleasures are ephemeral at best.

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~ by romancinema on April 20, 2014.

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