Sunday, April 20, 2014

Transcendence / ** (PG-13)

Will Caster: Johnny Depp
Evelyn Caster: Rebecca Hall
Max Waters: Paul Bettany
Bree: Kate Mara
Joseph Tagger: Morgan Freeman
Agent Buchanan: Cillian Murphy
Martin: Clifton Collins, Jr.
Colonel Stevens: Cole Hauser

Warner Bros. presents a film directed by Wally Pfister. Written by Jack Paglen. Running time: 119 min. Rated PG-13 (for sci-fi action and violence, some bloody images, brief strong language and sensuality).

Before I get to the review of the new sci-fi movie “Transcendence”, I’d like to pose a little common sense question to any scientists or screenwriters out there. I had a psych teacher who told me once that there wasn’t any such thing as common sense, but humor me. Let’s say you want to create some sort of area that is blocked off from all sorts of electronic transmissions and something like a copper mesh can actually do this. Does it make sense to hang the mesh from the ceiling of a structure you wanted to protect, or would it be a whole lot easier to encase the exterior of that structure?

If “Transcendence” proves anything, it’s that scientists and screenwriters aren’t always that good at thinking of everything, and by that I mean Hollywood screenwriters aren’t necessarily as smart as the scientists they write about. Of course, when you set out to write a story involving the three smartest people on the planet, according to the smartest of them, you’re really setting yourself up for failure in terms of matching wits with your own characters. I’m sure Jack Paglen means well with his too clever script, but too many screenwriting 101 classes and not enough attention paid to keeping your characters true to themselves can lead a film production down a slippery slope.

The movie concerns itself with the frequently asked science fiction question of whether artificial intelligence is a worthwhile pursuit of the human race. Does it make us too much like God? Or do we run the risk of creating a deity like intelligence that will turn out to be our own ruin? Paglen’s screenplay takes a bit of a didactic approach on the matter, which makes first time director Wally Pfister’s job a little more challenging in terms of dramatic tension. Pfister is a wonderful cinematographer, who has worked most notably with director Christopher Nolan on such films as “The Dark Knight”, “Insomnia”, and “Inception”. He’s directed a good-looking film, but hasn’t shown enough creativity in interpreting a screenplay that wants to give the audience too much information.

Johnny Depp plays the brilliant scientist Will Caster, who may have created the first workable independent A.I. system. An anti-technology organization, known as R.I.F.T. (I must confess I missed what these letters stand for, not that it matters), stages an act of terrorism that sees several A.I. labs attacked with many casualties and Will shot in a matter of moments after he gives a fundraising speech. Will survives the gunshot, but the bullet is laced with a poison that promises to take his life within a month.

Unable to further his research, his wife Evelyn—the second smartest person in the world, according to Will—hatches a plan to upload Will’s brain unto his A.I. system. With the help of Max—world’s most intelligent person number three—Evelyn succeeds in uploading Will consciousness into the computer before his death, much to the chagrin of R.I.F.T.’s primary operator, Bree. Soon Will is uploaded onto the Internet and there’s no more turning him off.

The set up here isn’t bad. There’s certainly the potential for a great sci-fi story. Unfortunately, an inexperienced director—who is more used to focusing on one aspect of filmmaking than conducting the whole picture—isn’t able to see the holes in the script for what they are. Major inconsistencies in character and the insistence on a twist that would’ve worked better if come at from a completely different angle, create a story that is slow, predictable, and impractical at all the wrong moments. Creating points of tension that are not within a character’s ideology cannot be written off by simply having the character ignore the moral ambiguity of their actions.

The movie does have worthwhile things to say about free will, our society’s deepening dependence on technology and the moral morass of scientific developments intended to help man that take away a great deal of what makes us human. It’s that same dilemma laid out by Dr. Ian Malcolm in the much better sci-fi flick “Jurassic Park”, “Your scientists were so preoccupied with whether or not they could that they didn’t stop to think if they should.” It’s a question we must always ask with science, and it’s good that so many movies exist to remind us to ask such questions. Hopefully, we’ll get more engaging efforts than “Transcendence” again on the subject in the future.

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