April 18, 2014 by bck1402
Stars Johnny Depp, Rebecca Hall, Paul Bettany, Kate Mara, Clifton Collins Jr., with Cillian Murphy, Cole Hauser and Morgan Freeman
Directed by Wally Pfister
Let’s just say I had some hopes for this one. I love science fiction movies. The old-fashioned kind that plays with ideas and concepts; the ones that hold a mirror to us and we see what might be as a society if we allow certain things to continue; the application of science to push forward the narrative. The other side of the coin are the sci-fi movies, which I can also enjoy. Transcendence would fall into the former category, so anyone expecting some full blown action set-pieces may be disappointed. This is a movie of ideas. Particularly that of Ray Kurzweil’s The Singularity. (look it up)
The movie itself may flit with the idea of artificial intelligence but it is more about uploading a human brain into the machine. In either case, however, there is a radical faction within the story that fights against both ideas- or rather, the general idea of a generated, possibly superior machine intelligence be it artificial or biologically transcended. They’re there mainly to create the conflict for the story. While they may be portrayed as terrorist bad guys at the beginning – blowing up labs and killing scientists working in the AI field, including shooting our lead character Will Caster (Johnny Depp) with a radiation laced bullet in order to kill him, it’s hard to define them as the typical ‘bad guys’ as the movie rolls on. And that’s the least of its problems.
Once Will is dying from radiation poisoning, his wife, Evelyn (Rebecca Hall) and colleague/boss Max Waters (Paul Bettany) work to upload Will’s mind into an AI based machine that was developed by Evelyn. While she would believe the experiment to be a success, Max doesn’t think so (and it’s a touch surprising that none of these AI scientists think of doing a Turing test, or maybe it’s implied but not shown?). As RIFT, the radical anti-tech group led by the enigmatic Bree (Kate Mara), closes in, Evelyn lets the newly digitised Will out into the world and then goes on the run, while Max is taken hostage. Meanwhile, on hand to investigate RIFT is Agent Buchanan (Cilian Murphy) aided by Will’s colleague and friend, Joseph Tagger (Morgan Freeman). That’s the basic plot that the movie hangs on.
Doesn’t see like much, does it?
This is the stuff you might find more on the SyFy network with a cast of unknowns or semi-retired stars, perhaps as a 2-part mini-series, rather than on the big screen with the cast we have here. There are a lot of ideas to play with and concepts to explore, but it’s mostly swept aside in favour of pacing and the oh-so-gorgeous visuals and vistas, thanks to former Director of Photography turned full-fledged director here, Wally Pfister and his DP Jess Hall. Still, try as he might, Pfister and his cast are saddled with a story that eschews its potential. One has to wonder what executive producer Nolan would have done with the story instead of passing it over to his regular DP.
While the cast do struggle with the material, they make do with what they have. Depp may have the above title listing, but it’s Rebecca Hall who does the heavy lifting, ofttimes performing against nothing very much. Aside from the first act, it’s hard to gauge Depp’s performance behind the omnipresent booming voice (making much use to the cinematic surround system) and digital screen persona. Perhaps, the lack of a performance as a digital avatar is calculated to make the viewer question just how much of Will is the cold logical program and if there is any ‘soul’ within the machine. As it boils down, Depp is delivering a mostly vocal performance, and it’s as cold as the machine he inhabits. Still, physically in the first act or vocally as the movie goes on, it’s an intriguing performance that may or may not captivate, depending on your mood to accept the conceit. It’s hard to determine if Hall and Depp managed the double act given his lack of physical appearance.
The rest of the main cast seem to be cruising easily with nothing very much asked of them. Morgan Freeman and Cillian Murphy make a decent double act, playing off each other, but again, it feels like contributing to Pfister’s project as if they’re helping out a friend. Paul Bettany is paired with Kate Mara and they fair slightly better, but the main cast do appear to struggle with the lines. There is a sense of predictability, and yet…. you can’t help but think of missed opportunities and the coldness to the proceedings that create a passionless air around the characters permeating through the film. That’s with the exception of Mara’s radical who carries out her mission with passion and patience.
As for Pfister’s move into directing, he shows that he’s learnt from his mentor, particularly with the editing. I find that when DPs move into directing, they do bring along their visual aesthetics and I can’t think of many who have found success in the long run. Steven Speilberg’s current DP, Janusz Kaminski made the supernatural thriller, Lost Souls (2000), and nothing much since. Jan DeBont did well with Speed (1994) and Twister (1996) but had less success since. Barry Sonnenfeld started as DP for the Coen Brothers and found some success on his own with The Addams Family (1991) and its sequel as well as the Men In Black films. In every case, each of them carried their own visual aesthetic into their films, and Pfister’s film does evoke Nolan’s style at times. So, visually, the movie is gorgeous, but it’s hard to determine if Pfister will succeed as a director. For a first flick, it’s probably a decent debut, a simple starting point to learn from.
It’s entertaining to an extent with a game cast doing the best they can. The production design is amazing at times, as are the effects. There is an irony that such technological advances on display in the movie was all captured on traditional film instead of being digitally shot. The epic scope of the story is hinted at but the concept, intriguing it may be, is let down by a story that doesn’t exploit its potential.
Spoilers abound from here on out
The idea revolves more around the concept of how much of Will in the machine is truly the person as opposed to simply being a program. It is an argument that comes up a couple of times, but then never really pursued. I honestly can’t recall any movie that actually took this approach. It was often the creation of an artificial intelligence that goes awry.
The extreme of a machine intelligence against humanity was explored in The Matrix trilogy (and that includes segments of The Animatirx) as well as The Terminator films (particularly the first two) but there are other shows to look at where such technology is in play, like TV’s excellent Person of Interest (created by Jonathan Nolan, brother of executive producer Christopher Nolan) or more recently The Machine . I’m sure you can find more.
Instead of tackling the question if Will did exist beyond the program, it focused instead on Will being the ultimate super-computer that pushes the boundaries of science, developing new and amazing technologies to benefit mankind as Evelyn envisioned. Even as the story spans years, the question of Will’s existence doesn’t cross Evelyn’s mind. As for the others, be it Will’s actual existence in the machine or the creation of a potentially genuine artificial intelligence, scientist or not, they only take one approach with no room for argument. Beyond asking just one question – a question used early in the movie against an AI – no one really tries to run any test on Will.
What ultimately clarifies the boundary is an act of morality. What happens is logical in terms of a machine creating a defence mechanism, but the execution of the said act raises enough questions about the morality, it’s a blunder wonder that Evelyn never raises the question. Any decent Sci-Fi TV show – even as in SyFy’s Helix – there is always the argument when the science crosses the line. A movie, with its limited run-time, doesn’t have the luxury to play out such arguments, it seems.
But even then, the story decides to switch things around and argue that everything Will does as a machine was to serve Evelyn in the end, always pursuing her dreams. An expression of his love for her, and that makes him human. Even after having the breakthrough of bio-nanotechnology that could recreate anything (what a visual effect that is on screen), it isn’t until the very end when Will recreates his biological form (via cloning? He called it regeneration tho). Of course, you have to ask why he didn’t do it earlier once he ‘created’ the technology two years prior.
There are other things to nitpick on such as RIFT’s utterly radical action, a seeming turn-around midway through and then throw all morals aside again to be the major bad guys by the end… or not. I suppose that they did stay true to their motivations in the end. Ultimately, as a movie that should provoke thought, it just doesn’t go the distance it should. Best to check your brains at the door and accept that what happens on screen happens without question.
I’d add an extra point to the rating for Pfister’s attempt and the visuals.