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Film review: TRANSCENDENCE, from Built For Speed

Films with a sinister, all-powerful, self-aware computer threatening to obliterate the human race have almost become a genre unto themselves.  There was the creepy HAL trying to scuttle the Jupiter mission in 2001: A Space Odyssey, Skynet triggering the apocalypse in The Terminator, Colossus threatening nuclear annihilation in Colossus: The Forbin Project and the female-voiced computer taunting Shia Labeouf in Eagle Eye. Each of these cybernetic monsters tapped into our fears about the vast possibilities and potential threats posed by the power of scientific discovery.  Sci-fi thriller Transcendence treads the same path and while touching on fascinating, pertinent and at times disturbing scientific and philosophical issues, it doesn’t hold together as a film.

In a questionable piece of casting, Johnny Depp plays artificial intelligence expert, Professor Will Caster whose lifelong mission has been to create a self-aware computer that could experience human emotion or what he calls a “singularity”.  His ground breaking discoveries have made him a target for violent anti-technology activists known as RIFT who fear the unimaginable power of such an intelligent and sentient machine.  When Will is shot, his wife Evelyn (Rebecca Hall) uses his and other scientists’ cutting edge techniques to upload Will’s mind to a super-computer known as PINN.  Immediately, however, the digitised Will seeks greater computing power and begins to invade the internet and gain access to vital systems including banks.   As his power grows he begins to perform what seem to be benevolent and miraculous feats in medicine, agriculture and environmental restoration but the FBI fear the super-intelligent computer is becoming an unstoppable danger to humanity.

Transcendence has many of the ingredients for a fascinating and confronting science fiction film.  It explores philosophical issues relating to the mind body divide, the ethics of artificial intelligence, the disturbing speed of technological development and man’s attempt to play God.  Unfortunately, first time director Wally Pfister (who was cinematographer on The Dark Knight) just can’t integrate these concerns into a thoroughly coherent or satisfying story. 

The film flits about annoyingly between Evelyn and Caster, scientific philosopher Paul Bettany (who spends much of the film locked in a cage), the RIFT activists, venerable but befuddled scientist Professor Tagger (Morgan Freeman) and FBI agent Buchanan (Cillian Murphy).  Consequently, the plot becomes disjointed and confusing.  Also, the filmmakers’ moral and political stance on the issues of technology and power is unclear.  The film begins to fray at the seams and by the third act its plot structure crumbles with director Pfister resorting to a clunky shoot-out.

Despite a concerted attempt to forge romantic chemistry between Depp and Hall, the film never grabs our emotions.  Hall is fine but the dishevelled Depp’s eccentricities and ever-mutating accent are unintentionally comical.  The all-star support cast of Freeman, Murphy and Bettany are relegated to bit players and never have the opportunity to deliver a substantial or memorable performance.  As we would expect from a film directed by the Dark Knight cinematography it’s evocatively shot and integrates computer graphics and real life footage effectively.

There are some tense, unnerving and thought-provoking moments in Transcendence but its lack of coherence is irritating. An opportunity for a highly relevant and compelling story has been lost here.

Nick’s rating: **1/2

Genre: Science Fiction.

Classification: TBA.

Director(s): Wally Pfister.

Release date: 24th April 2014.

Running time: 120 mins.

Reviewer: Nick Gardener can be heard on “Built For Speed” every Friday night from 8-10pm right here on 88.3 Southern FM.  Nick can also be heard on “The Good, The Bad, The Ugly Film Show” podcast. http://subcultureentertainment.com/2014/02/the-good-the-bad-the-ugly-film-show 

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