Last year we had a sweet, romantic take on artificial intelligence and technology with Spike Jonze’s Her. Going for a more paranoid, apocalyptic version of AI is Transcendence.
Johnny Depp stars as Dr. Will Caster, who along with some colleagues around the country, is making great strides toward creating a self-aware AI but a radical anti-tech group called RIFT conducts a series of attacks against scientists and labs in attempt to stop them. Will seemingly survives an assassination attempt but the bullet he was grazed with was laced with radiation, giving only about a month to live (one of the many things that strains you sense of disbelief in this movie). Will’s wife, Evelyn (Rebecca Hall), is determined to save him and uses the research Will was working on to upload his consciousness to a computer system. It works but the newly digital Will asks for more power and access to the Internet, and things quickly escalate as Will gets smarter and more powerful. Morgan Freeman, Paul Bettany and Cillian Murphy all co-star.
Even if the technology aspect was rock solid and completely realistic, it would still be undermined by the movie’s most glaring flaw, the character of Evelyn. I could not wrap my brain around how seemingly nonchalant she was about the frightening technology evolving in front of her or her complete lack of foresight and logic when dealing with everything in the movie. When Will asks to be put on the Internet, she doesn’t stop and ask herself, “Is there anything that could potentially happen when my husband has access to literally all the information on Earth?”. Even when Will is probably illegally getting her billions of dollars, creating a massive research facility and *spoilers* eventually creating super powered human drones, she only finally gets upset and rethinks things when she realizes Will has been monitoring her body chemistry and activity. She is the biggest villain of the movie through sheer incompetence and enabling. The rest of the characters also don’t feel like they have a sense of urgency about anything either. Paul Bettany eventually sees what is happening and works with RIFT to try and stop Will but his main plan is literally “wait till people get outraged/scared enough”. We also never see any impact of Will’s influence on the Internet or his research effecting anything in the outside world. Something that could potentially destroy humanity as we know it and could take over all technology at will is treated with the same regard as a hillbilly cooking meth in the backwoods.
There are a couple of cool ideas and sequences in the movie, like Will creating nano machines that produce rain clouds which spreads himself all over the planet and Will healing people but also turning them into drones but a lot of the ideas have been done in cooler and more exciting ways in movies like Terminator and The Matrix. Wally Pfister, who is Christopher Nolan’s cinematographer and directing Transcendence as his debut, has some great shots and an eye for design but the story doesn’t really match the visuals. The whole movie feels kind of loagy and lacks any sort of punch.
I feel like Transcendence might become the 2010’s version of The Net in a few years, where we’ll look back and laugh at how ridiculous it’s plot was and how it had no bearing on anything realistic, technology wise. It might be worth a rent eventually but I definitely would not rush out to the theater.