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Transcendence

Transcendence

We all know it's only a matter of time. You know in the end
the machines will win

dir: Wally Pfister

2014

Transcend… from what to what, you might ask? Transcendence is an interesting story mired by a world in which the impact of advanced technology is not as unbelievable as the actions of many of the silly, silly characters to be found abounding in this script. For there to be a popcorn friendly story, a lot of the super-smart people on display have to do a lot of dumb things, and that never bodes well for a high concept sci-fi story.

Personally, the premise (uploading Johnny Depp into the internet) is intriguing. The idea of uploading human consciousness into some kind of machine has been around for a while (predating William Gibson’s cyberpunk stuff from the 1980s), but recent advances in actual technology have to up the ante when it comes to what people dream up in science fiction. So it’s not just about a person’s consciousness uploaded: it’s about quantum computing, nanotechnology, technological singularities and artificial intelligence as well. And whatever other kitchen sinks the screenwriters cribbed from old copies of Wired magazines.

It’s not enough to contemplate something totally impossible currently (as far as I know, no matter what USB or firewire lead you try to insert into your brain, that doesn’t lead to your brain = online) and just randomly say “we did it!” just to push your plot along. Well, actually, I guess it is that easy. Because that’s what they do here. Build it, and it will come.

What’s “it”? Well, I’m not sure it’s helpful to describe it other than to say the idea of uploading Johnny Depp into some kind of computer leads to the idea that doing so would create an AI, or artificial intelligence, which would hit what science thinkers in the past have called the technological singularity. A singularity is a point at which the physical laws of the universe as we know them break down (as in beyond the event horizon of a black hole), or any predictions about what will happen become bollocks. It lends itself to quasi-religious imaginings (of AIs with god-like powers, or humans evolving to a ‘new’ level), or the end of the world as we knew it.

It’s inherently difficult to conceive of humans creating something more complex than themselves, but a key part of this kind of science fiction is that if we create AIs that surpass our level of intelligence, they’re only going to get more super-intelligent, and if they do, they’re not going to be kind to us. In the Terminator series, the AI Skynet tries to kill all of humanity seconds after achieving the elusive concept of ‘self-awareness”. Once it becomes self-aware, as in, aware of itself as a conscious being, it realises humans will try to stop it or control it, so it elects to kill billions of them in seconds flat. How’s that for decisiveness?

I think the reason why technology always goes evil in these kinds of flicks, whether they’re action flicks or not, is because of Frankenstein. Every “AI kills humans” story, from 2001 to the Matrix movies, owes a debt to Frankenstein, because ultimately the point that all these stories are making is that just because you can do something (through the magic of science) doesn’t mean you should. They're inherently cautionary tales, all fearful of what could come, not just because of the technology itself, but what people might do with it.

Plus, AIs that are perfectly happy with looking after humans and never harming them don’t make for 1 billion dollars plus in box office revenues. And if you don’t believe me, compare how much the Spike Jonze film Her made, a gentle and romantic story about a man and his operating system, versus the dumbest, loudest Transformers movie or any other flick with robots in it.

Maybe it’s not a fair comparison, but at the very least there are more explosions to be had that way. This is a murky film in terms of trying to figure out what the makers are actually saying about this kind of technology, and the effect it would have on humanity. The antagonists in this story are a bunch of aggressively violent luddites called RIFT (Retards Inspired and Frightened by Technology), who try to kill some of the main characters just as the movie begins. Dr Will Caster (Depp) and his highly brilliant friends are on the cusp of realising their dream of creating artificial intelligence, and this frightens people. A sickly looking man (Lucas Haas) asks Caster if he plans on replacing God by creating these new forms of ‘life’, and he answers back that isn’t that what humanity has always tried to do?

Thanks for the glib response, Doc. For his troubles, he gets a bullet, when others get blown to smithereens or poisoned, and his initial delight in surviving turns to misery when he discovers he still has a death sentence: it’s just been delayed a few weeks.

We take it that Will is brilliant, though we see no proof other than the praise of his colleagues and adoring wife (Rebecca Hall), but through him the most ambitious and difficult achievement ever attempted will come to fruition: he’s going to put a copy of his consciousness on/in a computer.

Once they do this, however the hell it is that they were going to do this, we are told that the ‘product’ would be, by default, an AI. And an AI, not having the same physical limitations of a human brain, would immediately start trying to expand, rewrite its own parameters, exceed its own origins.

And once it connected to the tubes of the internets? It’ll be on for young and old. He/It would then be able to access and view millions of cat videos simultaneously, or search for every copy of a naked celebrity available in nanoseconds flat, and all sorts of other things that are impossible right now.

I don’t know how any of this happens, because there’s a scene where the very unconvincing wife scientist character says to her friend Max who’s helping her (Paul Bettany, who’s even less convincing) “I’ve tried everything: language processing, cryptography, coding, and nothing’s working”.

Really? You’re trying to do something that’s never been achieved before, that’s more complex than the Manhattan Project and the moon landing combined, and even those three ludicrous things you tried didn’t help? Did you try doing the Hokey-Pokey and spinning around three times and saying “Pretty Ballerina! Pretty Ballerina!” as well?

I can’t say that I laughed after that line, because the feeling it inspired wasn’t good humour, but it did make me feel that the screenwriters probably don’t have much of an idea how popcorn is cooked, let alone how to build the perfect Johnny Depp using Technology!

I guess it doesn’t matter how they get there. The important thing is that they do get there, and Johnny Depp, or at least an AI version of him, takes up residence within some kind of quantum computer. Quantum computers? Well, it sounds possible, doesn’t it? Of course they don’t exist yet, but they sound magical, so why not?

For the wife we understand this isn’t about technological advancement, Nobel Prizes or big cash pay outs: it’s about not losing the one you love above all others. Her good doctor husband is dying, or will soon be dead, so she’s trying to ‘save’ him in the only way she can imagine how: via computers.

When you’re grieving, though, there will always be people to kick you when you’re down. RIFT, in the form of an angry murderous young woman (Kate Mara), who believes all this is the work of the devil and must be destroyed, does a whole bunch of murderous stuff, and captures Max, in order to convince him to stop Techno-Depp.

Look, it sounds like a shemozzle, and it most likely is, but there are still a bunch of interesting ideas buried under the poorly thought out actions that many of the characters take. The relationship between Evelyn, the wife character, and the AI version of Will is complicated, turning from initial relief and joy to dread. The path AI-Will takes is interesting enough, and at least partially ambiguous enough that we’re not that sure where the story is going to go. And from where the story starts, with the initial idea of an AI, to where it leads, with all sorts of crazily almost magical technology arising as AI-Will has time and space to expand, is pretty freaky.

The humans, however, aren’t as well served by this story. They do a continuous sequence of dumb things both when they have no idea what AI-Will is up to, and when they find out as well. They might have a genuine fear as to what AI-Will is up to or capable of, but much of what they do makes no bloody sense whatsoever. Morgan Freeman and Cillian Murphy are in this, and I have no idea why, since the story didn’t really need them, and everything they do and say seems superfluous. And, as well, when they’re trying to combat the rise of AI-Will, the way they go about it seems hilariously like maybe getting the local Girl Guides to blow some shit up, because stuff needed to be blown up. If they really perceive him as an absolute threat to all humanity, their attempts to stop AI-Will are patently ridiculous.

Multitudes of parts of the ending are just an idiotic muddle, with a computer virus *this* and a last second plea for understanding *that* which is so amateurish that I thought I was watching something brainless on the SyFy Channel like Arachnoquake, Sharknado or Mega Shark Versus Giant Octopus. Bleh.

Though it did contain a nugget of a kernel of an emotional payoff for Will and Evelyn that made me not completely hate the film, though still abhor the ending.

There’s a better version, a way better story hidden under the lazy screenwriter’s conceit than results on the screen. There are interesting ideas here, which would have been fun to explore without the necessity to eventually blow shit up or shoot people, but they didn’t have the balls or the ovaries to do that.

This was the directorial debut of Christopher Nolan’s cinematographer Wally Pfister, and it really shows that he doesn’t give a flying fuck about performance or actors, and as such should really stick to cinematography. Know your strengths and your weaknesses, that’s what I always say, or would if anyone asked me.

It’s not a great day out for anyone concerned, but at least it contains a recent performance from Depp that doesn’t make me cringe. He’s the only one of the actors that doesn’t seem that out of place, but then again, he’s living la vida loca online, and anything’s possible when you can do that.

6 ways in which it was hard to be on the side of the humans in this out of 10

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“We're not going to fight them. We're going to transcend them.” – if only you had, then the ending would have made a bit more sense - Transcendence

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