Friday, 25 April 2014

Transcendence (2014)

Transcendence is this decade's The Net!
In 1995, before the internet bubble became a thing, there was The Net. Sandra Bullock starred as a tech consultant whose professional and social life is conducted solely via the nascent internet. And according to this science fiction film, what we need to fear about the coming internet age is having your identity (and all the breadcrumbs or records one leaves behind while doing anything on the net) wiped clean, stolen, and replaced with something else. Instead of say, fearing about a world where nothing you do can be forgotten, where the entirety of your comings and goings is accessible to anyone who wants to know and has the means to know, which increasingly means everyone...

We may laugh at it now but Hollywood still gets science fiction spectacularly wrong. This month, it's Transcendence, a film billed as a paranoid tech fantasy where superintelligent computers take over the world. It's a bait and switch though: a brilliant scientist (Johnny Depp) on the verge of creating said superintelligent, world-conquering computers is mortally injured and his consciousness uploaded unto a computer.

Now the question the film poses is he, or isn't he? That is, in swift succession: the original human or an AI pretending to be human? Benevolent or malicious? Humanly ambitious or world-conquering computer ambitious? Depp turns in a cypher of a detached performance while the rest of the main cast (Rebecca Hall, Paul Bettany, and Morgan Freeman as the scientist's wife and best friends and colleagues) are either blindly oblivious to the ominous flexing of godlike power, or instantaneously suspicious to the point where they plan for AI Johnny Depp's immediate destruction. Yet both the obliviousness and the paranoid suspicion are wildly improbable and at odds with their status as brilliant scientists, futurologists, and philosophers who are supposed to be experts in this field, and presumably openminded and smart enough. This particular weakness in the script crops up repeatedly.

 In a film about big ideas, its characters seem to act without really thinking things through—perhaps because like The Net, Transcendence keeps asking all the wrong questions about technology. (Philosophically, the problem isn't about consciousness and the self but really about identity and changing roles and capabilities.) If one does feel that characters tend to behave uncharacteristically to poorly plotted and incomprehensible events and plot twists, it is in no small part due to this very central flaw.

Walter Pfister is known as the long-time cinematographer for writer-director Christopher Nolan. Unlike his collaborator though, Pfister seems not quite up to the task of turning a problematic script around. Attempts at rescuing the film with visually arresting, mid-budget effects (nanobots rearranging the landscape! Augmented humans performing feats of strength!) accentuate instead the film's final act descent into anything-goes, gobbledygook soup territory. We'll check back in 20 years to see just how off the mark Transcendence is about the dangers of AI.

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