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Review: Transcendence

Review: Transcendence

| On 29, Apr 2014

A much more thought provoking film than you’d expect, Transcendence has all the makings of a great film, but somehow fails to put the pieces together correctly. 

Transcendence revolves around the idea of Artificial Intelligence (AI), a concept that has been done to death on screen – think Her, Prometheus, A.I., Bicentennial Man, I, Robot, Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy – I could go on all day. In spite of the rich cinematic history surrounding the controversial subject of artificial intelligence, Transcendence manages to say something new, and ask us different questions about the nature of technological advance.

The story begins with Dr Will Caster (Johnny Depp), a computer neuro-nano-whatever expert who advocates, albeit begrudgingly and lazily, for artificial intelligence which could prolong our lives, save our planet, and expand our knowledge infinitely. Despite his relative fame in the scientific world, he’d much rather process algorithms from home until he cracks the code to life. The driving force behind his work is wife Evelyn, who Caster lives to please – in the end this proves to be both their undoing.

Radical anti-technology group RIFT seek to sabotage Caster’s work with the ole ‘radioactive bullet to the shoulder’ trick, but this soon backfires on them when Caster’s wife uploads his consciousness onto her computer via some pretty gnarly Ethernet cords in his head, thus opening a virtual Pandora’s box. Or does she?

 

Not Johnny Depp’s best look – image by hdmoviesplanet.com

Caster’s A.I persona appears the same, aside from the addition of static, and he’s not motivated towards evil, instead fulfilling the wishes of his wife to cure illnesses and improve the environment. Gradually, the cracks start to show – Caster is moving on a different page to the rest of the world – what he sees as the way forward for civilisation, we all see as well, mind control. As for Evelyn, she’s dealing with the moral ramifications of her actions, and the growing disconnect with her husband as his intelligence expands infinitely beyond her capacity to understand his logic.

The inevitable war between man and technology ensues, but it’s clear from the outset that for whoever prevails, victory will be hollow. Transcendence spends a great deal of time setting up Will and Evelyn Caster as a “one for the story books” kind of love, and we’re never entirely convinced that Will’s soul is absent from his virtual identity. On the other hand, RIFT and the forces that join them speak to our logic and deep ingrained fear of the unknown.

 

Plot hole #589 – how is this happening? – image by allhdwall.com

If Transcendence had pulled off the technical side of the story with more finesse, then I feel this film would be more of a success; however, the key problem is that the film never explains a single thing. There’s a few garbled words about monkeys’ brains at the beginning, but therein lies the extent of the writer’s faith in our intelligence as viewers. Uploading consciousness through a bunch of cords stuck into our brain; summoning some sort of nano-fix-all substance through the ground without any mechanisms whatsoever; and injecting a human with a computer virus are all things we are expected to blindly accept as believable, without any explanations whatsoever.

In spite of this, the actors do their best not to show that the whole idea is a walking plot-hole. Depp in particular walks the fine line between evil robot and sentimental husband trapped in a computer, with relative ease. Rebecca Hall and Paul Bettany are perfect as scientists with strong moral compasses, and Morgan Freeman is, as always, the smooth voice of reason.

The debate Transcendence stages in regards to the dangers of artificial intelligence programs is the film’s redeeming factor, because unlike every other AI-centric film, it never gives us a definitive answer. In fact, the film’s final moments suggest that perhaps there are no winners or losers in the story at all. But you’ll just have to watch for yourselves and find out.

Transcendence is in cinemas now.