Weekend at the Movies – Transcendence
Yesterday, Johnny Depp was only a human actor. Today, he stars in Transcendence, the Wally Pfister (Cinematographer for The Italian Job, Moneyball, and Inception) directed, Christopher Nolan produced sci-fi film about what most call the technological singularity, but the movie calls transcendence. For clarity, I assume.
In Transcendence, Dr. Will Caster (Depp) and his wife Evelyn Caster (Rebecca Hall) wrap their garden in copper fencing, creating a sanctuary where no signals can get in, a small corner preserved from the technology that pervades every aspect of our lives. It’s ironic, because Will and wife are world-renowned artificial intelligence researchers, on the cusp of developing a true A.I.—a machine capable of self-awareness and independent thought. But Will’s work costs him a high price when radical anti-technologists blow up, poison, or shoot every major A.I. researcher in America except for Evelyn, Will’s mentor (Morgan Freeman), and his best friend (Paul Bettany). Will himself is inflicted with radiation poisoning, doomed to an inevitable death. But Evelyn has an idea: she will record Will’s brainwaves as data. Can Will be preserved inside the computer, or will the man she loves be lost forever?
Savage is off this week, giving Courteous the unopposed say. Let's hope he doesn't abuse it.
The Courteous Take
In what should be a worrying sign, let’s begin with a tangent. There are two major styles of mystery story across the collective corpus of literature, film, and television: the whodunit (or detective story), and the howcatchem (or “inverted” detective story).
The former shows us a crime that has been committed, and the detective (or, sometimes, the viewer) must piece together clues to suss out the criminal before the story’s end. The latter shows us both the crime and the criminal, and the viewer is left to discover how that criminal is (or isn’t) brought to justice.
One style emphasizes the ends, the other the means. This juxtaposition goes beyond just mysteries, of course, and either one is perfectly appropriate when properly executed. Transcendence, for its part, tries the inverted approach, opening with glimpse at a world where all technology is dead, and framing the bulk of the film as a long flashback.
This implies that the filmmakers believed Transcendence’s most compelling element was not the way it all worked out in the end, but how the world got to where it was. It’s too bad that the filmmakers were dead wrong. What this flashback framing device does accomplish is robbing the film of any tension or real drama, which goes a long way towards making its two hours feel longer than James Cameron's preferred cut of Avatar.
(Also, since the film doesn’t value its own outcome, I’m going to bust my usual protocol and go full spoilers from here on out.)
The framing device robs the film of any tension or real drama.
Unsuccessful as it is, the framing device can’t shoulder all the blame of Transcendence’s deeply-rooted problems. If anything, it’s muddy morality that is the worm at the core of this rotten apple.
Is technology—and specifically is the creation of artificial intelligence that exceeds human intelligence—something to be welcomed or feared? Should we strive to create it, or prevent it at all costs? It’s classic—if low-hanging—sci-fi fare, and with Transcendence’s star-studded cast, it could have made for a perfectly enjoyable morality play.
Could have, that is, if the film had ever chosen a side. Are RIFT, the acronym-for-something group of “Neo-Luddites” who murder hundreds of scientists in the film’s opening act to sabotage the creation of any A.I. (unwittingly bringing that project to fruit in the form of digitized Will Caster), the villains of the film, or its victims?
They fear, as “Neo-Luddites” typically do, that an A.I. will go all Skynet on poor humanity. Further, they are certain that A.I.-Will is not a truly transcended human, but just a power-mad program masquerading as one. Once all that messy scientist-killing business is over with, it’s hard to argue that they might not have a point.
Especially not when A.I.-Will takes over a Northern California ghost town to build his massive solar-powered super-laboratory, or when he converts the town’s population into unkillable nanite-enhanced super-soldiers, or when he starts brain-jacking his minions and wearing them as meatsuits to try and get it on with his (ex?) wife.
Muddy morality is the worm at the core of this rotten apple.
Sounds pretty evil to me. It’s evil enough to convince Morgan Freeman and Paul Bettany that they should forget about their hundreds of murdered friends to join forced with RIFT. Heck, it’s evil enough to convince Evelyn that she must become a human trojan horse to kill her not-husband.
But then! As A.I.-Will lies dying next to the wife he just allowed to murder him—after all, his A.I. super-brain let him see through their feeble human plot—he reveals that he really was a truly transcended human Will after all.
How do we know he’s telling the truth? Apparently, his last act as an A.I. was to reverse the collective negative effects of humanity on planet Earth, repairing the atmosphere, purifying the water, regrowing the forest, etc. In fact, that was the whole reason why he developed his centuries-ahead-of-its-time nanotechnology. That was his endgame all along.
So why build an evil zombie army? And why, for that matter, allow himself to be murdered (and allow his wife to die in the process) if his intentions were always good? What about the millions of people that must have died when RIFT’s virus wiped out all the technology in the world? What about justice for RIFT’s (comparatively lesser, I suppose) hundreds of murdered scientists?
Yeah. Okay. Those are all tangible details, as the great Film Crit Hulk calls them. And perhaps in another, better film they could be forgiven as unimportant. But not here. Not when they are the very evidence by which we must judge the film’s moral construct. This is not a film where ambiguity is welcome or appropriate. This is not Inception.
Transcendence is a morality play that does not know what is good. Quite simply, it's bad.
Where Do We Go From Here?
If you want a serious treatment of the triumphs and terrors of A.I., I’d recommend Isaac Asimov’s Robot series (The Caves of Steel, The Naked Sun, The Robots of Dawn), but unfortunately none of the film adaptations (like 2004’s only loosely related I, Robot) are really up to snuff. Alternatively, if you want a truly great sci-fi film (and film, full stop) featuring an A.I., you cannot go wrong with 2001: A Space Odyssey.