Monday 21 April 2014

Transcendence: Review

3/5 stars

Transcendence is an ambitious film about the rise of a superhuman artificial intelligence. It doesn't achieve all it sets out to do, but it is a commendable attempt.

Hollywood's record in trying to address artificial intelligence has been patchy at best. It includes the sentimental nonsense of Spielberg's AI: Artificial Intelligence, the stylish kung-fu nonsense of The Matrix, and the totally absurd nonsense of The Lawnmower Man. Transcendence seems to be keenly aware of this history, and it is desperate to be taken seriously. To some extent it is successful. Much like its main character, Transcendence has overcome the weakness of its ancestors, but lost something of its humanity along the way.

Transcendence focuses on mind uploading and the technological Singularity, two key ideas in modern science fiction. As I recently discussed, uploading is transference of human consciousness to a computer. Simply put, the Singularity arises from an artificial intelligence which can upgrade its own capabilities. The upgraded intelligence can then upgrade itself further, achieving an exponential increase in its mental powers until it reaches godlike status. Both concepts are controversial among scientists, but Transcendence takes them at face value and runs with the results.

Transcendence follows a researcher named Will Caster, played by Johnny Depp. He is a stereotypical shy and unworldly professor, who studies advanced AI out of abstract curiosity. His wife Evelyn, played by Rebecca Hall, is more interested in the practical applications of his work. The stakes are raised by an underground group known as Rift, which fears the coming of the Singularity and is willing to commit acts of violence to prevent it.

Will is at least partially successful in uploading himself and starting on the path of exponential upgrades. He is opposed by the increasingly desperate members of Rift, and forms an uneasy alliance with the US government, represented by a senior professor (Morgan Freeman) and an FBI agent (Cillian Murphy). By his side is Evelyn, but she begins to have doubts about the uploaded Will's agenda. Will's power grows, and he promises a new utopia for all who wish to join him, but Rift and its supporters prepare a final attempt to bring him down.

Transcendence has a lot going for it. This is a thoughtful film with a clear idea of the story it wants to tell, and it tries hard to explore what might be the real consequences of an impending Singularity. I was reminded strongly of the film Contact, based on Carl Sagan's novel about first contact with aliens. This is the first feature film directed by Wally Pfister, best known as cinematographer on the Batman trilogy and Inception, who proves to be a capable director with a strong visual style.

However, Transcendence falls down on several points. It is simply too long. Scenes drag on much longer than they need to, and it repeats the same lingering shots for no particular reason -- admittedly they are beautifully composed, but here Pfister's eye for a striking image is the enemy of concise storytelling. I think a much tighter and more compelling film could be made by cutting fifteen or twenty minutes.

Transcendence is told in flashback, from a classic cosy catastrophe in which humanity has reverted to a sort of rustic nineteenth-century existence. Logically speaking, the collapse of our technological civilization must have caused tens of millions of deaths, but this matter is delicately glossed over.

Finally, the film is almost totally devoid of humour. Everyone is grim and earnest at all times. In a more action-oriented film this might not matter, but Transcendence is fairly slow and talkative, and two hours in these characters' company gets a little wearing.

Despite its flaws, I think Transcendence deserves a lot of credit for intelligence and ambition. In an age of precision-tooled, focus-grouped blockbusters, it is good to see a mainstream film trying to do something different.

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