One of the advantages of going to see a film for which your expectations are low, is that you may get a welcome surprise if it's better than you expected. And while Transcendence is several light years from being a masterpiece, there were moments when I felt genuinely engaged. Unfortunately, there weren't enough of them.
Johnny Depp plays brilliant scientist Will Caster (god forbid he should just have an above average IQ) who works in the field of Artificial Intelligence; not so much robots as a higher intelligence that could surpass the combined brainpower of everyone who has ever lived. Now that's what I call clever. We know that Will is basically a Good Egg because a) he's played by Johnny Depp, b) he's married to the lovely Rebecca Hall (even though she is 18 years younger than him) and is best friends with Paul Bettany (who has the unwelcome role of combined gooseberry and moral conscience) and c) he listens to music on LPs.
But when he is shot by an anti-science terrorist outfit who think all work on human intelligence is playing god (which of course it is), and the consequences of the shooting are not as trivial as first appeared; then wife and BF have an ethical issue on their hands. Do they upload his intelligence, creating an unknown entity that might just be devastatingly all powerful, or do they let him shuffle off his mortal coil?
If you were a film executive, guess which option you'd go for? Apart from anything else, if you've hired JD for a whole 2 hours, you can't really have him abandoning ship after 30 minutes. So now we have a Cyberdepp ruling the world with seemingly megalomaniac tendencies, aided and abetted by his grieving (but also super intelligent) missus, while BF Bettany is languishing in the hands of the anti-AI gang who want him to help them stop this Framkensteinian threat.
OK, so it's a bit farfetched, and the beginning of the film is slow and tedious, and the last part of the film is slushy and unconvincing, and there's far too much music, and Wally Pfister (a DOP who wants to direct – big mistake) doesn't have the wherewithal to pull it off. But having said all that, at some level it's a more thoughtful and thought provoking film than Inception (which Pfister was cameraman for). Nolan's movie seemed to be to be full of sound and fury, signifying nothing (even by Hollywood standards). But this film does at least try and grapple with some issues which might have been very interesting if handled with more subtlety.
What makes a human being? Is it just their brain patterns; in which case, can you re-create a human by uploading everything contained in their brain? Is the question of creating artificial intelligence one that concerns us, in terms of morality, ethics and unknown outcomes? And no, the film doesn't come up with any very interesting answers, preferring to go for CGI bollocks, and a grand finale that feels like a copout (because it is).
I'm not convinced that Depp is suited to the central role, and poor Kate Mara (as the leader of the anti-AI posse) has to make do with staring eyes and a blond wig. Morgan Freeman is reliably reliable, and Bettany (sadly for such an interesting actor) is still stuck in a sidekick role. As I say, it's a lot less than it could have been, but not nearly as bad as I was led to believe.
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