17 May 2014

Review: Transcendence

(Dir: Wally Pfister, 2014)

The idea of the singularity is nothing new in filmic terms. Terminator 2 may have couched the omnipresent fear of artificial intelligent self-awareness in the threateningly didactic term "judgement day", whilst hammering the point home using the crushingly iconic image of gun toting silver mechanical skeletons clambering over human skulls, meaning this is something we should fear. Or is it? If you choose to believe how Transcendence frames this idea, using that very word as an alternate descriptor weighted with positive implications, you might believe it's a friendlier proposition. Or perhaps it just seems that way when the sentience in control is Johnny Depp.

This is the core idea that frames Transcendence, serving as a catalyst for a handful of other intriguing ideas, not all of which are worth focusing on, resulting in a film that finds itself becoming too easily lost. As time progresses and we find ourselves deeply ensconced in this century with technology taking an increasingly prescient role, the reality of machine based self-awareness feels strikingly close. Take the fear created by Skynet back in 1991 - we've always seemed at least a lifetime away from that happening, whilst comparatively the artificially appealing Samantha in Her seems not only attainable rather than fantastical, but desirable in the impact it could have on our lives. If that concept hadn't been set as an alternative love story, surely dystopia would've reigned supreme. The point is we're getting a lot closer to making this fear real so we should be exploring it more now. Yet there's something reductive about imagining this coming from a person whose had their consciousness uploaded so they exist beyond the corporeal. Or perhaps it just feels like a fantastical step too far. Early in the film we're introduced to an A.I. called P.I.N.N. and I can't help but wonder if letting that run amok would've been more satisfying instead, rather than the resulting nano tech and it's slightly odd dispersal method which continually feels like a step too far. At least there's a little bit of intrigue to come from the different perspectives of is "he" bad or is "he" actually good, even if the ending leaves you with mixed levels of satisfaction.

To my eyes the most interesting idea within the whole film is a sorely underexplored concept seemingly only to exist as a function of the plot: the rebel group R.I.F.T. led by Kate Mara's Bree who are inspired by the words and ideas of Paul Bettany's Max Waters. This is a group who see where the ship is heading and will do what they must to halt its inevitable progression. Dissolution of the internet and our perpetual connectedness is a realistic solution for them, and it's here the film could've used more focus. The internet appears to be the greatest creation of modern times but do we still even appreciate the deleterious effects it may have on us, our children or society as a whole? It's intriguing to think how we might cope going back in time an equivalent twenty plus years by having such unparalleled access to information and expression yanked from us, whilst living with technologies no longer capable of fulfilling most of their intended functions. Would it be a positive for society and how desperate would the scramble to get it all back look? How lost would the youth weened on this feel? Beyond the initial fear of losing all this "something" that doesn't really exist, it's hugely fascinating. Thus it's frustrating that the film touches on this concept but really chooses to keep it at arms length in favour of a failed human story and generic thoughts of control.

Further frustration is bred from the presence of Mr. Depp. There was a time when the prospect of seeing Depp in a film was a reassurance that it would be intriguing and quirky, but damn has he overplayed that card now. This may be a contentious opinion for his fans out there, but he has not been good in anything since the turn of the century. Just look at his filmography on IMDb and you'll realise that the only satisfying work he's done in the last 14 years is voicework (The Corpse Bride, Rango & Frankenweenie). His physical presence on screen has become a reason not to watch something, and when he loses the annoying quirk he's just bland. Transcendence is no difference - his character is irritating from the outset and when he's later traversing the line of is his digital self actually good or bad, the smug, righteous, self-satisfaction he oozes makes you wish you wouldn't see him on screen in anything again. The rest of the cast is a mixed bag. Neither the aforementioned Mara or Bettany get enough screen time, whilst Morgan Freeman feels well out of place as some sort of tech / AI guru. Rebecca Hall is usually an interesting actress but her character suffers from a myopia that makes her feel too one dimensional. Another case of good bunch of actors not adding up to much thanks to the material.

The one strength of the film, which was always expected thanks to director Wally Pfister's pedigree, is that it's visually very enticing. But when you're Christopher Nolan's go to cinematographer that's the least we should expect from your first film. But it shows that Pfister has yet to work out how to actually tell a story. It's clear why he'd choose this as a directorial debut as there are good ideas lurking within, but they're never fully realised whilst the structure and way the story evolves always feels unfocused. It's a shame as prior to release Transcendence showed all the hallmarks of a film worth getting excited about. If and when it happens, the singularity will inevitably be a lot more memorable.

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