“It has become appallingly obvious that our technology has exceeded our humanity.” – Albert Einstein
Since the movie saw fit to quote Einstein as it’s push for research into artificial intelligence, I thought I would open with a quote that the movie didn’t mention (surprisingly). Last week when I reviewed Oculus I spoke of the things we fear as a (western) culture and how that drives our trends in horror movies. Sci-fi also delivers some of those fears as well, but rather than trying to terrify us on an emotional level; it goes for the scare on a mental level and ultimately tries to make you think.
In the past year we have seen a rash of Sci Fi movies asking us what makes a man (Oblivion), what defines a soul (Robocop, I Frankenstein), should we fear technology (Paranoia – yes it sucked, but it asked). Those are but a few. So my opening quote is our fear. Are we too connected? Too dependent on machinery? How far is too far for science? The thought of Dolly and it’s implications terrifies many. Don’t get me started on Bern and the Collider. We have decades of movies now telling us that Artificial Intelligence is the end of man kind. Decades of being told to be afraid of advancement in this field. 2001, Terminator, War Games, the Matrix, and more recently Battlestar Galactica all show us the terror of our machine overlords and what “will come to pass”.
This is where Transcendence comes into play.
It had the opportunity to come in and shake things up. To tell us to not be afraid of the machine. To not be afraid of science and technology. First time screenwriter Jack Paglen and director Wally Pfister are just as afraid as the movies want us to be. I lay the blame on Christopher Nolan. He is an executive producer on the film and Pfister has been his Director of photography forever and a day. So I think Pfister was acting as a mouthpiece for Nolan here. CNS raises its head to the surface but never quite breaks through. It verges on the pretentious and preachy and filled with its own self importance of the message it wants to deliver. It just sort of falls flat on that message.
I want to like this movie more than I do. I truly do. The fact that it came in with a preconceived notion that technology was bad and our humanity, our soul, and our consciousness were divine bothers me on a deep level. This film had such great opportunities to ask questions – which it kept trying to – and really explore the answers. Instead we get a sort of jumbled mess of shots of people walking, people looking pensive, and effects that were verging on dated a few years ago. Thats what really makes me angry though. It ASKED some of the questions it was trying to get to. It was just asked from a bias that made it difficult to answer. It asked the questions in such a way that it may as well have asked “so when did you stop beating your wife?” Yeah that is a little extreme. I am angry though. There was such potential here and they threw it back in our face. A movie like this should make us think. It should have us give a hard look at everything. I did while the credits rolled, but its my nature.
Why so worked up about it though? There’s plenty of bad movies out there that try to be more than they are.
You are right, there are. None of those have the raw potential to be more. The script isn’t horrific overall. Its shallow and afraid, but not horrific. The movie succeeds where so many fail because it has actors you want to watch. It has actors you give a damn about. Thats why I am angry, because it had potential. The movie gives me back the Johnny Depp I love from the Ninth Gate, the Tourist, and Finding Neverland. It serves to remind me that he is a tremendous talent capable of nuanced performance through voice alone and not just Disney and Tim BUrtons pet goofball. Rebecca Hall (Iron Man 3, Vicky Christina Barcelona) also runs the gambit of emotions in her performance. I was pleased, even if she did come across as a “we couldn’t get Scarlet Johansson” at times. Its unfair, but for the first few trailer passes I thought it was Scarlet. Her acting, however, really does let her hold her own on the screen with a cast of actors you will recognize.
Paul Bettany (Knights Tale, Iron Man), Cillian Murphy (Batman Begins), Morgan Freeman (will do anything for a paycheck), Kate Mara (House of Cards), Clifton Collins Jr. (Boondock Saints 2), Josh Stewart (Criminal Minds), Xander Berkeley, Lukas Haas, Cole Hauser, and others fill this cast with talent. Freeman is wasted as he often is these days and generally uninspired – also as he is these days. Nearly all the actors do their very best to deliver when they can. The standout is Bettany. He and Hall carry the film and deliver the necessary emotional punches that it needs when it needs it. Bettany successfully upstages (in the best way possible) Freeman at every turn and easily is a beautiful presence on screen with Depp and Hall. I really hope to see more between Depp and Bettany as they both can play each others dramatic and comedic talents to the fullest in anything they do, as well as hitting action beats.
Alright, no technicals this time. I kind of got my dig in there earlier. The effects are satisfactory, not mindblowing. They are a step up from the last time we saw something like this in The Lawnmower Man.
I really want to recommend this, but I can’t. It is not for all audiences and only a few people I know would enjoy the conversations that come from it. Mage the Ascension players might see this as a Virtual Adept gone Maraud. Some folks might enjoy the conversation they develop on their own after.
Does our technology out strip our humanity? Is there something to fear? I will be honest folks, I wouldn’t mind having that conversation with people, but the movie isn’t needed for that. perhaps some day we will get a movie that doesn’t tell us to be afraid of AI.
Next week – I will be talking about Imports vs. Domestic with Brick Mansions.