During much of 1970s cinema, movies like “Parallax View,” “All the President’s Men” and “Blow Out” reflected and catered to an America that was going through the Vietnam-to-Watergate run of government malfeasance. So it was to be expected that moviemakers would tap into that paranoid zeitgeist, suggesting evil and conspiracy behind every corner, a puppet master in every hidden chamber.
So far in the space between the Microsoft Windows era to the social media era, if there is one major theme in American film, it’s that the current unabated advances in technology are scaring the terabytes out of us. The astounding improvements in computational speed have reaped a largess of advancement in every field, even outside of computing — medicine, environment, finance, entertainment, war.
Decades from now, when future generations look back on the cinema of the late 20th to early 21st century, they’ll find — along with lots of remakes, sequels, reboots and remakes of rebooted sequels — a pretty obvious trend of technophobia that makes us shudder in our Google Glasses.
Whether it’s fear of computers (“The Matrix”), lack of privacy (“Enemy of the State”), genetics (“Gattaca”), social media (“The Truman Show”) or robotics (“I, Robot”), it’s been a prolific run of these technophobia films. Ironically enough, we as a society seem to thoroughly embrace technology despite the fear. Not only that, we constantly thirst for and demand more of it.
There’s also the irony that these filmmakers are warning us against technology by using that very same technology — Digital film! Real 3-D! 4K resolution! IMAX! Smellivision! (One of those is not real.) — to reach the masses.
In “Transcendence,” the technology explored and questioned is artificial intelligence (A.I.). Essentially, the field of A.I. attempts to quantify human consciousness so precisely that we can then replicate it artificially in machine form. We’re attempting to create virtual life.
Like every other truly revolutionary technology, there is always the fear that we as humans are exceeding moral or spiritual barriers. Simply put, we’re not supposed to be playing God.
Johnny Depp (“Pirates of the Caribbean”) plays Dr. Will Caster, the foremost scientific researcher in A.I. Dr. Caster is on the cusp of mapping out the human brain and getting very close to achieving technological “singularity,” or the creation of sentience in a machine.
When an extremist group mortally wounds him in a terrorist attack, it does not derail his plans. In fact, it inadvertently inspires his wife and associates to achieve Caster’s goal of singularity. To save his life, or rather, his consciousness, they upload the contents of his brain onto a computer as his mortal body fades away into death.
From this point, we witness the conflict that ensues among Caster 2.0, his wife and associates, the terrorist group and government law enforcement.
Depp is dead weight as the script doesn’t really give him much to do except appear on a bunch of LED monitors. His presence in the movie is strictly as a honey pot on the marquee intended to draw audiences, most of whom would not attend this film.
The meat of the acting comes from Rebecca Hall (“The Town”) and Paul Bettany (“A Beautiful Mind”). Hall plays Dr. Caster’s conflicted wife, and Bettany his colleague and friend. Kate Mara (“House of Cards”) plays the leader of the terrorist group. Hall and Bettany have their moments, but the talented Mara doesn’t have anything decent to work with in this script.
Wally Pfister directs his first feature film after making Christopher Nolan’s movies look incredibly gorgeous as cinematographer. He ultimately won an Oscar for the eye-candy store that was “Inception,” solidifying his place as one of the best cinematographers in the business.
The use of IMAX in “Transcendence” is puzzling. Except for a few interesting landscape shots, there was absolutely no need for it, unless Pfister had extra rolls of IMAX film sitting around his attic with an impending expiration date. Or it was a simple marketing ploy, like Depp.
As a director, Pfister has room to improve, and needs to pick better source material. What starts slowly as a Cartesian meditation on consciousness turns into a dull mash-up of regurgitated action and thriller themes. The science and metaphysics are way too remedial for the esoteric, and the action and entertainment are way too staid for the mainstream.
That’s too bad, because the themes are very much worth exploring. The “anti-” in the anti-technology movies is different than the paranoia of the ’70s films in one major way. The old conspiracy movies provided us a lens to see through the curtain that hides the villain — the government, corporations and military-industrial complex. Today’s technophobe films don’t serve as lenses. They’re mirrors. And the enemy is us.