I’ve been very happy to see the revitalization of the hard sci-fi genre in recent years. As much as I enjoy spectacle flicks where aliens and robots are rendered in astonishingly realistic detail, I do still enjoy science fiction that explores the implications and ramifications of technological progress on our society. In other words, as much as I like watching things blow up, a thinking picture is something I’m always willing to get behind, and it’s nice to see science fiction return to those roots. So I was pretty excited to see Transcendence, a film that purports to be about blurring the line between human consciousness and artificial intelligence. However, what I got was a film that was so disappointingly pedestrian that it crossed the line right over stupid and into just flat-out boring.
Johnny Depp plays Dr. Will Caster, a computer scientist who develops artificial intelligences beyond anything anyone else has before. When he is shot with a poison bullet by a member of an anti-AI terrorist cell, his wife and a fellow scientist resolve to use his final weeks alive to transfer Caster’s consciousness into a computer. This set-up may seem contrived, but I did think that the film had potential despite it. However, as the film goes on, and we see Caster stretch his networking limbs out as he reaches his full potential, it becomes clear that the contrivedness is going to be the status quo for this film. There’s a pretty sharp tonal U-turn as the Casters’ achievement becomes ominous and suddenly the film expects its audience to root for the terrorists. And while we can see the effects that this AI has on the world it inhabits, the film never stops to delve into questions of the ethical responsibility of scientists creating new intelligences, or whether or not scientific progress outweighs those concerns.
See, this film is content to just present the emergence of a true artificial intelligence as scary in its own right, but doesn’t really give us a reason to fear it beyond it being unnatural. There’s an argument to be made that many, if not all, of the AI’s aggressive actions throughout the film are self-preservational, but the movie just wants us to see how scary a monster Caster has become. The last act of the film is a half-hearted attempt to inject some action into a slow and methodical plot, but the explosions and effects feel token, and the so-called plot just involves Caster doing scary things like build a self-sustaining power facility for itself and create nano-machines that heal and give super-strength to people, but also implant a pseudo-hive mind for Caster’s self-preservation. In theory, these actions should be a slow build-up to a thought-provoking climax, but instead the film is content to end on a whimper that doesn’t really advocate either a pro- or anti-AI philosophy, making the cinematic equivalent of a shrug and walking away.
Now, I can take a stupid film as long as it’s entertaining… but this film is not. Everyone involved, including great actors Johnny Depp and Morgan Freeman, seems to either realize just how stupid of a movie they’re in, or the director just couldn’t be bothered, so no one seems to actually give a damn about giving a good performance. Everyone delivers their lines in the same flat dramatic monotone, supposedly trying to convey the gravity of the supposedly intellectual happenings at play, but instead just seeming as bored with the material as I was. If the actors in the film can’t be bothered to care, why should I become invested?
In the end, Transcendence is beyond a disappointment. It is a dull, soulless piece of science fiction that has been done better a million times before. Hell, Portal did a better job of analyzing the depths of artificial intelligence, and GLaDOS is about as cartoonish as computerized villains get. Don’t waste your time here, folks. A two-hour nap would be more intellectually engaging.
Have a favorite hard sci-fi flick? Let me know in the comments below.