kurzweilai.net Morgan Freeman, Johnny Depp, Cillian Murphy and Rebecca Hall star in the sci-fi film that explores the creation of digital consciousness, but the final result fails to satisfy.
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Morgan Freeman, Johnny Depp, Cillian Murphy and Rebecca Hall star in the sci-fi film about creating a digital consciousness.

★★☆☆☆

Science in the modern age. Conscience surviving after death. Artificial intelligence. These complex and intriguing topics promise, and fail, to come together in the plot of “Transcendence.” Although the movie tries to open our eyes to the implications of advancing science, its evocative voice becomes muffled under the many limiting layers of Hollywood cinema.

The film follows the journey of Will (Johnny Depp), his wife Evelyn (Rebecca Hall) and their friend Max (Paul Bettany) as the three scientists test the boundaries of digital consciousness. Their controversial research sparks the emergence of a radical group known as R.I.F.T. that attempts to assassinate Will along with anyone involved in the project. Ironically, the only way to save the poisoned, dying scientist is to upload his conscience into a computer, thus creating true artificial intelligence. The remainder of the movie explores a series of problems resulting from this experiment. Morality, ignorance, love, loyalty and power become central themes as each character explores the repercussions of this new sentient being’s existence.

The plot’s potential to mix sci-fi and real human emotion is buried beneath stereotypical Hollywood characters and actors. There are the scientists trying to do good, a power-hungry artificial intelligence, shady government and terrorist figures and a group of small-town folk that are brainwashed through no fault of their own. To add to this mess is Johnny Depp, known best for his humorous roles as eccentric characters like Jack Sparrow and Willy Wonka. Cast as the typical glasses-wearing serious smartypants scientist, he falls short of anything spectacular. Rather than promoting his acting skills, the movie seeks only to attract attention through this big celebrity name. This typical Hollywood stunt is coupled with the sporadically appearing scientist Joseph, played by none other than Morgan Freeman. While we all may rejoice at his name at first, his flat, underdeveloped character offers little to the film.

It seems like there’s a constant tug-of-war between experimental originality and hackneyed Hollywood moments. The movie is Wally Pfister’s directional debut, and he falls right into the trap of a big budget and interpretive freedom. Pfister is a renowned cinematographer who has worked with Nolan to produce the “Dark Knight” trilogy as well as “Inception.” While the cinematography is indeed praiseworthy, little else can be saved. Embedded into the emotional, fresh imagery are predictable scenes of money badly spent. Explosions, failed government ops and of course the occasional mushy love scene slow the pace of the movie down to an almost unbearable rate.

So what in this movie can be dug up from the layers of Hollywood sludge? The answer is cinematography and computer graphic effects. While the predictable plot is indeed questionable, there’s no doubt that the movie fulfills at least some of its objective. It gives close-ups of single water droplets and zooms out to an immense field of solar panels. It tracks the detailed regeneration of plants and human parts and then pans out to a digital fast-paced computer screen. Moments of grandeur are glimpsed and captured in these images, evoking a sense of amazed disbelief that is key to any good sci-fi film.

While “Transcendence” may fall short of becoming the next sci-fi classic, it does have one noteworthy accomplishment. It makes the audience think about the complex concepts of life, death and conscience, if only for a brief moment. The film rises up to question some of the greatest mysteries of human existence, but sadly, pulled down by Hollywood muck, it never quite transcends.

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One Comment

  1. I saw the movie, Transcendence on an IMAX Screen in Chicago on Saturday, April 19, 2014, and liked I liked it, but was irritated about the lack of attention to finances and economics. I used to manage a Data Center that cost about $1.25 billion to build. The movie happily reports that Ms. Caster’s wealth has mushroomed to $38 million, so she decides to go out west, buy a town, and build a huge underground Data Center that is complete with its on Solar Power Farm. At one point, I had to just suspend all logic and knowledge of business and technology and just watch and go along for the ride.

    People would be wise to read this very readable April 2000 Wired Magazine Article by Bill Joy, “Why the Future Doesn’t Need Us” prior to going to see the movie, “Transcendence”. It will help you understand what is happening with the nano technology and bio-engineering.

    http://archive.wired.com/wired/archive/8.04/joy_pr.html

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