Friday, April 25, 2014

The Cinema File #341: "Transcendence" Review

Transcendence, the directorial debut of Wally Pfister, feels like a movie his former boss Christopher Nolan might have passed on before settling on the upcoming Intersteller. It has all the trappings of a Nolan-ish movie with its transhumanistic futurism and pseudo-science underpinning personal stories of love and loss, just missing that essential unifying thing that sets an actual Nolan movie apart from your typical high concept drama. What that thing is has eluded many writers and directors who have tried to ape Nolan's formula since his breakout success, but one would have hoped that his own protege might have had some idea. Instead, we get a tired and mostly predictable anti-technology sci-fi thriller that's low on thrills and so insulting to actual human intelligence that it might just have you rooting for the machines to take over after all.

Dr. Will Caster is an expert in artificial intelligence who finds himself transformed into one after he's shot and eventually killed by a group of Neo-Luddite terrorists attempting to avert the Singularity. Now, there's a lot of stupid to unpack in that sentence, so let's start from the beginning. As the title suggests, the theme of the day is transhumanism, the melding of man and machine that leads to the creation of a new kind of life form, based around the idea that the next stage of human evolution is technological rather than biological. That is, unless the stupid apes who fear what they don't understand see it coming soon enough to shoot grenades at it. Yes, this is another one of those modern, technophobic Chicken Little movies in the grand tradition of The Terminator and, perhaps more to the point since its also terrible, The Net. After Spike Jonze so cleverly inverted this trope just last year in his excellent romantic comedy Her, to see the "A.I. is always Evil" gimmick trotted out so obviously so soon is more than a little disheartening, especially with so much talent involved here.

But wait, before we get too far into just how much this movie screws up its main premise, we have to talk about the villains, or maybe the heroes, of the movie, depending on where you fall on the idea of a Cloud based computer consciousness conquering the world by insidiously helping people and solving all their problems. Neo Luddite isn't a term I just pulled out of thin air, its actually used in the movie to describe the terrorists, and when I said Caster was "shot and eventually killed," I refer of course to the bullet that just grazes him, but happens to be laced with a radioactive isotope that poisons him, because, you know, just having better aim wasn't an option. Are you fucking kidding me? Anti-technology terrorist? Basically, all the Y2K idiots and pop culture junkies on the Internet who conflate the Singularity with Skynet are gonna pick up guns and start infiltrating technology sectors to assassinate scientists? I assume this is right after the hipsters unite and stage a revolution against the Man.

What's even worse is that the movie never knows who's side it wants you to take, and eventually settles on validating their stupid naive worldview because it doesn't have the balls to actually say that technology surpassing human intelligence might just actually be a good thing. We're meant to get HAL vibes right away as the computerized Caster seems just a bit off, playing in that uncanny valley on purpose to sow distrust as the film bounces back and forth on whether or not he's truly him, or just a digital approximation. Except the question doesn't ever become relevant to the action and is just cast off by the end. The real problem with the "A.I. as villain" concept is that here, the big bad computer doesn't actually do anything evil. They try to tack on a body snatcher subplot with nanobot fueled hybrids, but they come off more like advanced humans than robots with human faces, and once the cavalry rolls in, we're just supposed to take it as a given that their doing the right thing, and the only thing they can do, even though that means shutting down all technology and reducing the planet back to a pre-industrial age in the process.

That's not a spoiler by the way, even though it sounds like one and in any other movie would be. It really should be a spoiler actually, except that Transcendence makes the cardinal mistake of starting off with a flash forward that blows the ending for no other reason than to create a sense of foreboding dread and possibly set us up to think the evil machine caused this, so we'll hate and fear it as the humans do up until the point where we realize they stupidly did it to themselves for no reason. The nano-infected hybrids are linked, implying a Borg like collective, but no more so than social media links us today, and the benefits seem to far outweigh the risks of just letting this A.I. thing do what its doing. Seriously, Robo-Caster's grand plan is to revolutionize nano-technology to heal people and the environment, and apparently this is so devious a scheme that it requires all of us to give up our technology in favor of our freedom to die of diseases previously easily curable. If that's the choice, resistance isn't just futile, its counter intuitive, and you can sign me up for assimilation.

I want to say just by virtue of the director's obvious talent and the larger ideas the movie could have exploited, that Transcendence could have been so much better than it is, but the more I go over it in my head, the more depressed I become as I am forced to accept that this is probably the best treatment of this kind of material we're ever going to get, at least in a mainstream, big budget Hollywood movie. Outside of William Gibson novels and the odd anime here and there, the themes this movie tries so haphazardly to explore are maybe just a bit too complicated for the soulless process of reducing every idea to its lowest, most commercial friendly common denominator. Ironically enough, had Nolan actually been at the helm both as writer and director, he might have been the one person with enough cache built up to actually do it justice, but apparently he was too busy helping Zack Snyder ruin Superman to deal with such heady topics. Oh well, maybe when we achieve our next level of consciousness as one with the machine, we'll be able to figure out how to make this story work. Until then, vote Skynet.

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