Eye on Film: Transcendence

Transcendence is described as smart, intelligent and brilliant by columnists of repute from across all media formats. And after seeing the film at a screening earlier this week, I can see why it is receiving some of those lofty accolades. However, as something of a prisoner of the belief that great science fiction should suspend the viewer’s disbelief, certain aspects of the film left me wanting more.

Starring Johnny Depp, Rebecca Hall, Paul Bettany and Morgan Freeman, Transcendence tells the story of a computer scientist named Dr. Will Caster, a leading researcher in the field of computerized neural networks.  As the film begins, the viewer sees a prologue of a future where all forms of computer based technology have been rendered null and void and the narrator, voiced by Paul Bettany, tells us all how it got that way. 

Depp’s character is on the verge of helping push the world toward a technological event horizon where mankind’s intelligence will be surpassed by computers that have become sentient and self-aware.  After surviving an attempt on his life by a techno-terrorist, Dr. Will Caster (Depp) begins to slowly die from his wounds. While his wife Evelyn Caster (Hall) and best friend Max Waters (Bettany) decide to upload his consciousness to a sentient computer called P.I.N.N. The experiment is a success, but Waters quickly realizes the potential for danger. However Evelyn, still in love with Dr. Caster, is blind to the danger possibly posed to humanity.  

For me, once the plot began to thicken, which was about a third of the way through the film, I could already see how things were going to end.  Waters helped create the code that is the computerized DNA for the program Caster became. And it quickly becomes apparent that he will be instrumental in helping destroy it. Then the terrorists kidnap Waters, who already told Evelyn of his concern that the sentient computer she believed was Dr. Caster was likely not him, but a computer based approximation, and they eventually turn him over to their cause.  Dr. Joseph Tagger (Morgan Freeman) and FBI agent Buchanan (Cillian Murphy) are invited to tour a desert facility where a now more powerful Caster program is working on technological cures of mankind’s most pressing problems (pollution, longevity, chronic illness and ending poverty). Meanwhile, Evelyn slowly begins to see that an omniscient machine incapable of understanding the subtle nuances of human consciousness and individuality is indeed a threat. Waters and agent Buchanan eventually win her over to their cause, and convince her to help them shut the machine down.  Again, predictable. 

But here’s my issue. Knowing technology, I understand that Nanos are tiny machines made of microscopic slivers of carbon that are able to manipulate matter and change its properties on a subatomic scale.  This technology is real, but its pragmatic application is decades into the future. I had no problem with them using it as a plot device, but they never explained the method by which the Caster system was able to manipulate them.  I like science fiction movies, but I am often annoyed when scientific applications are made to look more like magic than actual science. Transcendence did this on several occasions.  Although I liked how the film spoke on humanity’s responsibility to change the world, the whole “mankind fears what they don’t understand” premise is just too cliché. 

Transcendence is a decent movie with good acting. But it could have been more imaginative and thorough in its explanations of technical applications. I wasn’t expecting a scientific dissertation. But if you’re going to trust the viewer to be smart enough to understand the premise during the first part of the film, please continue to do so. And because this wasn’t done, Transcendence descended into time honored clichés and over used plot devices. 

The film gets plenty of high marks for CGI and furthering the discussion of where the line of human consciousness ends and technology begins. By the end of the film, the good guys wind up looking like the bad guys and the lines of morality are ambiguous. While the build up to the grand climax of Transcendence was weak and the ending left me feeling flat and wanting more.   

Transcendence hits theaters April 18.

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