Thursday, July 17, 2014

3+1 Short Paragraphs: Transcendence

2014, Wally Pfister (director of photography on Batman Begins, The Prestige, Inception) -- download

Transcendence is a thoughtful science fiction movie about the emergence of The Singularity which unfortunately thinks it can play double duty as an action movie. Conversely, I could have title tagged this Notes for the End of the World, as the movie bookends itself as flashbacks from a world now sans technology, but that tagline has sailed, until the next time I find three apocalyptic movies to watch back to back. Maybe around the time of the release of The Rover.

The movie takes place 20 minutes into the future when Johnny Depp and his colleagues have already successfully invented AI and are trying to think beyond the limitations of what it can do, what it can become. Meanwhile a terrorist group called R.I.F.T. (revolutionary independence from technology) believes we have become too entwined in tech, probably from too much Facebooking, and are ignoring the dangers of allowing AIs more into our lives. This is a nasty bunch; they target all the major AI labs blowing them up, poisoning them and shooting Dr. Caster (Depp). But not just shooting him, but pulling a Litvinenko style assassination by lacing the bullet with Polonium. So, Caster will die, just not gracefully nor quickly. This gives his wife and partner time to copy his brain into their AI architecture. Disappointingly, they don't ask the AI what she thinks about being overwritten by a fussy scientist. In case you are wondering, yes, Dr. Caster as an AI talking head does kind of look like Max Headroom.

Max, I mean, AI Dr. Caster does what any good AI should do -- surpass human level thinking. He builds a Secret Base (not all that secret) and solar power plant, to allow even further expansion. He seeds himself throughout the entire world of networked computers, having access to All the Information. And he completes the research into nanotechnology, creating an army of super powered, networked humans to be his hands. Or his Army, depending on your point of view. This scares the heck out of everyone, making them believe RIFT was right. So, Homeland Security, its own small military force and RIFT tagging along in pickup trucks move to shoot the AI zombie army. This is where the movie falls flat, in a silly combat focused third act, that is doomed to fail, of course.  All the strong ideas of what an AI could become are wasted in paranoid over reaction.

As in Her, the AIs realize quickly that they are surpassing humanity at an alarming rate, and will eventually leave it behind in some manner. And also like in Her, there is a love story at the heart of the interactions between an AI and humans, as Dr. Caster is doing this all for his wife. SPOILERISH ending sentences! Like many other weak thrillers, the final scenes of the movie are about us realizing that the AI was Not Evil all along, and was only trying to make a better world for his wife in the most (scarily) efficient manner at his disposal. But they shot him. And destroyed the world.