Transcendence

May 3, 2014
Johnny Depp in Transcendence (2014)
Johnny Depp in Transcendence (2014)

With poor attendences in the United States and disastrous reviews, Wally Pfister’s Transcendence is set to be the biggest hi-tech, mega-budget, sci-fi flop since After Earth, last year’s misbegotten star vehicle for Will Smith and son. It’s not an entirely fair comparison because Transcendence is a much better film. Its failure is not due to the usual factors – a banal script; a formulaic story; endless, flashy special effects – but because it has tried to engage with complex ideas about Artificial Intelligence that admit no resolution.

The dilemma may be stated succinctly. If we manage to endow machines with the capacity to think, rather than simply process information, will those machines allow science and technology to advance at a more rapid rate, creating a paradise on earth – or will they decide that human beings are inferior life forms that need to be eliminated or enslaved?

The problem for first-time director, Pfister, and his scriptwriter, Jack Paglen, is that they can’t quite make up their minds. This is a major mistake, because in dramatic terms the dilemma is a no-brainer (if you’ll pardon the expression). The superbrain must almost always take an evil turn because paradise is rarely gripping entertainment. Milton’s Paradise Lost is marvellous, but Paradise Regained is a yawn. Dante’s Inferno has much more appeal than his Paradiso. “Heaven,” as the Talking Heads sang, “is a place where nothing ever happens.”

The outstanding, recent exception to the rule was Spike Jones’s Her, in which a man falls in love with an operating system named Samantha, who simply outgrows him.

In Transcendence, Johnny Depp plays Dr. Will Caster, a scientific genius at the cutting edge of research into Artificial Intelligence, who has created the world’s most powerful computer. Will is a scientific rock star who has his photo on magazine covers and groupies clamouring for his autograph – a situtation that should amuse real scientists. His wife and collaborator is Dr. Evelyn Caster (Rebecca Hall), who dreams of a better world while Will dreams only of his next algorithm.

When Will is shot by a group of Neo-Luddite terrorists it seems the only path to salvation is to feed the electrical impulses of his brain into the big computer. The result is a God-like super-mind that spreads throughout the entire planet via the internet. This new version of Will says he wants to do great things for humanity. Under his direction, Evelyn establishes a massive underground research laboratory in a deadbeat desert town. Before long they have made revolutionary advances in nano-technology that will change the nature of life on earth, turning the planet into one big machine.

Unfortunately, Will has become a control freak on a cosmic scale, who not only heals the sick but transforms them into physically enhanced drones who respond slavishly to his commands. Naturally, humanity – led by the Casters’ old friends and fellow scientists, Max Watters (Paul Bettany) and Joseph Tagger (Morgan Freeman) – must act to defuse the menace.

The resistance to Will takes the form of an unlikely alliance between the government and the terrorist organisation. This is a bold idea but probably another reason that Transcendence managed to alienate its audience. As Tony Abbott has reminded us, it’s much easier to divide the world into goodies and baddies.

As Will unveils the scope of his powers and his vision for the future, one begins to think: “Wow! This mightn’t be a bad idea, even if humans are reduced to zombified slaves of the superbrain.” To define Will as a villain we apparently have to reject all the positive aspects of his technological revolution as well. The result of this rejection, as we know from the very first frames of the film, is a world of squalor and poverty in which all normal forms of economy and infrastructure have broken down.

Even if we allow for the film’s shifting ambiguities beween right and wrong, there are fundamental flaws in the way it is put together. As one might expect from a professional cinematographer, Wally Pfister has made a visually handsome feature. It is let down by the mechanics of story-telling, such as an opening which gives away the end of the story, removing any trace of suspense. The script is not actively bad, but too wordy for its own good, never managing to properly explain the ideas behind the action. For many viewers, the only form of transcendence they will experience is that slow, painful journey beyond the threshold of comprehensibility.

Transcendence
UK/China/USA, rated M
119 mins
Directed by Wally Pfister; written by Jack Paglen; starring Johnny Depp, Rebecca Hall, Paul Bettany, Morgan Freeman, Cillian Murphy, Kate Mara

Published in the Australian Financial Review, Saturday 3 May, 2014.