Transcendence

All your cats are belong to him
★★★
☆☆
Released: 
2014
Director: 
Wally Phister
Starring: 
Johnny Depp, Rebecca Hall, Paul Bettany, Morgan Freeman, Cillian Murphy
The Setup: 
Guy's consciousness uploaded into computer, he becomes all-powerful.
Discussion: 

So here comes the first film directed by Christopher Nolan's cinematographer, Wally Phister. And it's about a sentient computer taking over, and it's got awesome Rebecca Hall in a major role, and it sounds like a lot of fun! Enough so that I overlooked the tepid to poor reviews, hoping that maybe they just didn't get something or there was more to it than I was seeing. And was there? Is it actually brilliant but misunderstood? Let's find out!

We open in Berkeley, California, where there is no power! Now-useless gadgets litter the ground and people use computers for doorstops! Ominous! What could have caused this change? Let's discover, as we flash back five years. There we meet Johnny Depp as Will Caster, who has successfully uploaded a chimp's conciousness into a computer, and made an AI system called PINN. He is married to Hall as Evelyn. They are friends with Paul Bettany as Max, and Morgan Freeman as Joe. Will gives a speech about how the moment of self-awareness of a computer, which everyone else calls the "singularity," he actually calls "transcendence," because, well, he just likes it better. And it makes a better movie title, too! I'm just going to call elephants "snarphoolies" now too, okay? Let's just everyone go around making up our own words!

So Will is shot by RIFT, an anti-technology group who has no clear mission statement except NOT liking big technology, and like, privacy invasion, and like, you know... They make a bunch of coordinated attacks around the world to make it seem like this ISN'T just some device just to set the plot in motion, which it is. Joe says that the attack wiped out decades of his research and you're like "Seriously? You're supposedly a super-advanced computer genius and you do not make remote backups?" Will seems to be okay, but the bullet was radioactive, giving him only four weeks to live. Evelyn gets the idea to upload his consciousness into the AI system, which they do. The movie only has enough time to pass grazingly at knowing one has a defined amount of time to live, agreeing to have holes drilled into one's skull and one's consciousness put into a computer, and Evelyn's desperate grief. In fact, we will realize later, the movie didn't even let us get to know Will well enough while human to realize how he changes upon becoming an all-powerful supercomputer. Oh by the way, you'll need no medical care during the final weeks of life, and no one, not even the cremator, will ask why you have 30 holes drilled into your skull. That kind of stuff is just so common these days.

Oh hey, if you ever need to build a massive supercomputer in a secret location, you'll probably find an abandoned school, completely unlocked and free of any homeless squatters, and with all the still-working electricty you need, right in your community. That's what Evelyn does. Eventually Will dies and before you know it, pops up in the computer. Poof, and he connects to the internet, and soon enough, he knows which Nigerian banks will REALLY pay millions for just a deposit of a few thousand, and has access to every single cute cat picture humanity has ever created. Then all of a sudden he wants to dip into financial records and make millions in stocks so they can expand their research and power, and Max says "That's not the Will I know!" and Evelyn "We can't shut it down--it's HIM!" and Max says "It's not him anymore!" and Evelyn says "Get out! God damn you, get OUT! OUT! OUT!"

SPOILERS > > >
Well, no sooner is Max out than he is kidnapped by RIFT, led by a young lass whose social philosophy is articulated by her having bleached blond hair and dark eye liner and just like, GLOWERING as though she is like, so, I mean like SO, SO PISSED. Max now realizes the danger of Will on the Internet, and that if he copies himself to remote locations [like his "genius" buddy Joe didn't think to do] he'll be unstoppable, so he joins with RIFT to stage a raid on Evelyn's lab, BUT, somehow--never explained--Evelyn somehow KNOWS that this is imminent, and they upload Will just in time. The remnants of RIFT repair to the mountains, Max still prisoner, and Will, who has made billions on stocks, tells Evelyn to build a massive compound in the desert. Then: Two Years Later!

The massive complex in the desert is built. It has a bunch of nice reflective glass and nice surfaces and it--like the rest of the film, seeing as it is directed by a cinematographer--looks amazing. The movie starts to generate a look of shooting Hall against constantly moving computer graphic backgrounds, which works to highlight the isolation of her situation. They have made lots of technological advances, all of which remain obscure to us. One of the workers gets mugged, and we find out that one of the chief advances of their research is into medical technology, and they have some nano-technology [or something] that can heal anyone quickly. Please do NOT allow your mind to wander off the clearly-marked path and start to wonder if Will couldn't just have made billions with his medical advances and taken over the world silently, as that is NOT the proscribed trajectory, thank you very much. So Will healed the guy but, get this, now Will has taken over the guy's consciousness. And the crippled and blind are starting to come in to be healed like the place is some kind of modern-day Lourdes, and each one becomes a part of Will's army. What does Will want to do with this army? Umm, WHAT did I just tell you about asking questions? Zip it!

So while the unanswered questions are piling up, their tide is generally held back by how entertaining the movie is [if you like mid-paced talky sci-fi thrillers], and I was actually quite enjoying it. One of the best things about it is that, Depp reduced to a picture on a screen, the movie belongs to Rebecca Hall and she does an excellent job of slowly letting the creeps come over her while ostensibly remaining wholly behind Will's plans. The movie sets up an excellent concept of a marriage in which one partner has infinite surveillance capabilities over the other, but it has as much time to develop this as it does anything else, which is to say--barely any. It's just one of numerous interesting ideas that are touched on but not explored.

Around now is when the movie starts flying apart.

By now we've started to have this metallic dust that drifts up into the sky. Did you see that in the trailer and say "Wow! I want to know what that stuff is!" and as you see it in the movie, you might think "Can't wait to find out what that stuff is!" but then... ummm... hate to tell you, but we only get the most cursory explanation of what it might be, and that explanation could easily be replaced with "magical fairy dust" without changing the movie. It's basically all-purpose nanotechnology that pretty much does everything, okay? So just accept that. By the way, Cillian Murphy is on hand in the most pointless role of the modern cinema. RIFT builds a huge underground bunker right under the all-knowing supercomputer, which doesn't notice. They try to blow the place up, but the pixie dust rises up into the sky, and gets into clouds, and goes and rains around the world, so you have this nanotechnology spread all across the world, which is kind of cool and ominous and gee, sure wish they would have developed it more. It can also self-repair solar panels, build human tissue, and be used as non-dairy creamer, as well as arch-supporting insoles.

So Max realizes to stop Will he's going to have to shut down the entire internet, which might make you ask if Will has any evil plan, or they just don't like him having all this power, because he's done nothing but fix a lot of sick people so far, but you know what happens to people who ask too many questions... They get iced. So drop it. Right now. Evelyn leaves and--symbolism klaxon sounding!--takes off her wedding ring. She is soon kidnapped by RIFT, where Max has developed a virus that'll kill off Will as well as the whole internet but sparing any cute cats content, as well as awesome time-lapses, and that the all-knowing supercomputer simply will not notice. And, continuing the magic fairy dust theme, it is able to be injected into Evelyn's blood. This is apparently dangerous, in a way that is not specified, except when Max shouts "It could kill her!" without any explanation.

She is sent back to Will's camp, which is under attack, and finds that not only does Will's nanotechnology give a citrus scent to smoky rooms and provide zest to salads and snacks, but has created a new Will, in the flesh! Only, you know, I bet he can use all those nano-particles to, umm, ENHANCE certain body parts, if you know what I'm sayin'. Will's minions are able to lift heavy objects, like washing machines! And that is about all they do, making them a somewhat vague threat. But they COULD be a threat, THAT is the important thing to remember. If Will had an evil plan. Which he doesn't. Anyway! Evelyn is soon killed! And Will puts his hand into her blood and--looks like shit's up for him. Soon the entire power grid goes offline, worldwide, and we're sent back to the stone age! No more Beiber Twitter feed for you, bitches!
< < < SPOILERS END

It has so much good about it, it's a shame it's a mess. Aside from the good cast and beautiful cinematography, it has a lot of interesting ideas. Thing is--it has too many, way more than it can deal with. And most of them are undeveloped, so they just end up becoming intriguing allusions to something that could be developed, and nagging questions that you never got answers to. Some are bigger than others, but a crucial one that essentially kills the film is WHAT IS all that silvery fairy dust? Tell us specifically what it is and what it does, because the entire second half [and the climax] of the movie rides on understanding what it could do. Not knowing that, we can only become so involved. Secondly, umm, does Will have an evil plan? If so, it is never articulated, and if he doesn't, then what really is the problem? Is it just that he has too much power? And that he's building an army? That army is quite benign until threatened, so... you're not really selling me that there is a problem here. And all of this supposedly has world-changing implications, although we can only guess at what they are.

Other things that could have benefitted the movie are getting to know Will better before he is killed, so we can see how he changes when he enters the computer and gains absolute power. It would have been good to know the nature of his relationship with Evelyn before he enters the computer. How does Will's consciousness change once he's in the computer? It would be interesting to know how his perspective changes, how his priorities change. What is all that they've developed in that huge lab? And by the way, the government doesn't want to know about any huge stock market gains or any massive scientific labs until years later? What are the rules of that magic fairy dust? What can it do and can't it do, and what danger does it signify? What's the problem with Will having an army, if he has no evil plans for them? What does Will want at all? It would be interesting for the movie to go into the dangers humanity faces from all this, and the implications that one would really need to shut down the entire internet to kill off an entity like Will, and how would humanity react to going back to no internet... but the movie just doesn't have time for all this, so it ends up being a lame movie that only alludes to some of it. This movie has enough ideas to be turned into an entire TV season, with a nice center around the transformation of this marriage, especially when the one human partner can't get a second of privacy.

Anyway, not unwatchable, and you probably won't notice what a mess it is until the last half hour. Then you won't realize what a godawful incomprehensible mess it is until the next day. But it fails for having too many ideas, rather than too few, and there are worse things. For example, phlegm.

Should you watch it: 

If you have a high tolerance for high-concept sci-fi that collapses under its own weight.