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Thursday, May 1, 2014 12:01 am

Transcendence wastes its vast potential


Some films go out of their way to have their plots act as a metaphor for the action on screen. Case in point, the recent horror film Oculus, about an evil spirit that lives in a mirror, sports a story that puts together scenes from the past and present in such a way that they reflect one another, to underscore the notion that its characters are stuck in a loop of action they can never replace. It’s a very clever strategy and one that adds an extra narrative layer to the film that’s rewarding. Unfortunately, Wally Pfister’s Transcendence unwittingly adopts a similar technique as, like its main character, it starts out with great potential, but proceeds to squander it until we’re left with a standard movie instead of a challenging one.

Dr. Will Caster (Johnny Depp) is on the cutting edge in the field of Artificial Intelligence. He and his team have invented a system that has the potential to have the intelligence capabilities of every one who’s ever been born. The possibilities of such a machine seem limitless. He, his wife Evelyn (Rebecca Hall) and colleague Max (Paul Bettany) posit that it will be able to cure cancer and other fatal diseases by being able to make discoveries and connections our minds could never hope to achieve. Caster also believes the machine could ultimately think independently, develop feelings and have God-like omniscience once it’s hooked up to the World Wide Web.

This doesn’t sit well with a group of terrorists who fear this sort of technology would ultimately infringe on our privacy and perhaps replace human beings themselves, so they set out to assassinate this modern mad scientist. They’re only partly successful as Caster survives the initial shooting but he’s told he only has a month to live as the bullet he’s been shot with has given him a fatal case of radiation poisoning.

So far, so good. Pfister and writer Jack Paglen provide a great example of speculative science fiction that tantalizes us with the possibilities of artificial intelligence that, whether plausible or not, sparks our curiosity in intriguing ways. Scenes in which blindness and various fatal conditions are cured through the use of nanotechnology and stem cell therapy are quite moving and far closer to being a reality than one might think. (See http://www.theguardian.com/nanotechnology-world/science-nano-technology-cancer-cure-disease-medicine for more information.) Had the film stuck to exploring this angle, it might have resulted in an inspiring, classic piece of science fiction.
However, just before Caster dies, Evelyn discovers a way to upload his consciousness into the system they’ve created in order to preserve his mind. It doesn’t take a genius to predict where this cautionary tale is headed. The absolute power of endless knowledge corrupts the visionary scientist and before you know it, he’s pulling together an army of “enhanced humans” he can control for nefarious purposes. The film becomes a standard action movie. The race to pull the plug on Caster 2.0 plays out, which is too bad. As fresh as the first hour of Transcendence is, that makes its predictable demise all the more disappointing.

Contact Chuck Koplinski at ckoplinski@usd116.org.


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