Movies: Transcendence

When the previews for this movie came out months ago, I was pretty excited. Good cast and what appeared to be an interesting premise. Plus, a shout out to the local Livermore Lab! But when the actual film came out, critics panned it, and I decided it wasn't anything I absolutely had to see on the big screen. So I waited.

The good news: Transcendence wasn't as bad as the reviews led me to believe.

The bad news: It still wasn't great.

Johnny Depp plays Will Caster, a scientist working on A.I. When he's shot by an anti-tech group called Rift—with a radioactive bullet!—after giving a lecture, his wife Evelyn (Rebecca Hall) and friend Max (Paul Bettany) use Will's remaining time to "upload" his consciousness so he can continue his work.

Okay, so it's a stretch. But other sci-fi movies have reached further and grasped at less.

Almost immediately, Max begins to doubt. But Evelyn, of course, wants to believe it really is Will living on in the computer(s). She hooks him up to the Internet and he plays the stock market so they can go build a massive lab out in the middle of the desert.

At this point, I'm not sure what Evelyn does any more, since Will pretty much runs things in the lab. Also, it's not clear how much time passes in building this facility; it seems impossibly fast, but maybe that's because Will via computer is able to sign shipping manifests and requisition materials at, er, will. A little later a legend reads "Two Years Later," but at that point it doesn't seem much has changed.

Max, meanwhile, is abducted by Rift and kept as the world's worst zoo exhibit until he agrees to help them.

Morgan Freeman and Cillian Murphy are also wandering around as another scientist/guru (Freeman is the go-to for that kind of thing these days) and an FBI agent.

Thing is, there are some interesting ideas underlying the terribly generic plot, and if they'd taken the movie in any number of directions, it might actually have been really good. For example, the way Will as a computer watches over Evelyn. That's super creepy. They could have punched that up and made for a truly horrific stalker angle. But my guess is they didn't want to taint the "love story."

And then, when Will begins "enhancing" the people he helps so that they are networked together? What if the zombie apocalypse came at the hands of such a thing? People connected via technology . . . It could be a Doctor Who episode, really, and probably has been (Cybermen?), or a Stephen King novel (Cell?) . . . So while it's not an original idea, it still could have been put to great use in Transcendence. But wasn't.

Finally, the question of what one would be willing to give up in order to be "enhanced." Or, looked at another way: Is it worth healing the world and providing resources for all at the cost of individuality? What is the risk of having whole populations able to be commanded by a technological consciousness? (Is it a consciousness? Or merely a code?)

I won't say how it all gets resolved, but it is the fad these days to play upon the fear of technology meltdowns. What does it mean to be so reliant on technology, even just electricity? Shows like Revolution explored that, and Transcendence touches on it as well. But again, the movie only skims; it never delves. And that's its greatest sin. While attempting to transcend, Transcendence is merely mediocre.

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