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Johnny Depp Can’t Save “Transcendence”

Film Review Transcendence Alcon Entertainment

Alcon Entertainment

David Ives - published on 04/18/14

It (thankfully) lacks eyeliner, but it also lacks logic.

The good news is Johnny Depp doesn’t wear any mascara or eyeliner in Transcendence.

Now, don’t get me wrong, I’m not disparaging anyone who makes judicious use of a dash of black to make their peepers pop out a little. Heck, I’m not even saying Depp’s obvious love of guyliner is a completely bad thing. After all, Edward Scissorhands and Captain Jack Sparrow just wouldn’t be the same without their raccoon masks. But let’s be honest, his last few turns under the brush haven’t exactly been Depp’s best moments. The Mad Hatter, Barnabas Collins, Tonto… these are not the roles one wants to be remembered by. So, yes, it’s good news that Johnny forsook the silly face paint this time around and chose to rely solely on his acting.

The bad news is somebody forgot to tell the rest of the movie to make wise choices as well. Transcendence is one of those films with a timely premise, good actors, and a strong visual sense that somehow still manages to fall apart by the end thanks to a few missteps.

It’s a shame because the movie starts out pretty strong. Depp plays Dr. Will Caster, a character no-doubt inspired by Google’s resident genius, Ray Kurzweil, the renowned inventor who became the public face of the modern transhumanist movement after serving as the subject of the 2009 documentary Transcendent Man. Like his real life counterpart, Will is a champion of the notion that the limitations of the human biological condition can be overcome through the use of technology. In particular, Will is working on technology that would allow an artificial intelligence to mimic the human brain, the first step in a process that would eventually allow a human mind to be transferred, or “backed up”, to a computer hard drive.

Of course, this is hardly an idea new to Transcendence. Scientists have been speculating about just such a thing ever since the first computer showed up, and science fiction authors jumped on the idea soon after. Mind transference has even become a fairly common trope in sci-fi movies since at least the 1960s (the ridiculous The Creation of the Humanoids) all the way up to the present (the top worldwide grossing film of all time, Avatar). But in the past few years, folks like Kurzweil have started making claims that we’re now getting close to the point where such a process will be feasible.

Obviously, this presents some important ethical considerations for our real world future. If Kurzweil turns out to be correct and scientists somehow develop a process that allows them to make a digital copy of a person’s mind and download it into a synthetic container, just what the heck is it that they are creating? Will it really still be a person or just a machine that thinks it’s a person? Or will it be something new entirely, an omnipresent being capable of things beyond the capacity of us mere humans?

The questions are pretty interesting and Transcendence tackles them head on, at least for a little bit. While at a conference touting his theories, Will is questioned by an audience member as to whether he believes he will be creating a god, to which he responds, “Isn’t that what man has always done?” Satisfied that Will isn’t properly taking into account the potential negative ramifications of his research, the questioner pulls out a gun and mortally wounds the scientist. Simultaneously across the country, similar attacks are carried out at facilities which have been working closely with Will, including the one run by his close friend, Dr. Joseph Tagger, played by Morgan Freeman. (Don’t worry, though. Only The Lego Movie is gutsy enough to kill off Morgan Freeman. He survives.)

Amazingly, to the script’s credit, the anti-tech terrorists in Transcendence are not portrayed as religious fundamentalists, a track I was worried the movie was going to take after hearing Will’s tired atheistic come-back to his questioner. Instead, they’re just folks who paid attention during all of the Terminator movies and came to the conclusion that having a self-aware artificial intelligence with unfettered access to all of the world’s computer systems might not be a good idea.

Alas, the saboteurs’ efforts backfire. As it turns out, Will’s wife Evelyn (Rebecca Hall) and best friend Max (Paul Bettany) are also geniuses who have been working closely with the dying scientist. After they discover that one of their murdered colleagues had successfully backed-up a monkey’s brain to a computer (why you’d desire a computer that wants to do nothing but sit around, eat bananas, and fling poop is beyond me, but hey, that’s science), they decide to combine his technology with their own and digitize Will’s mind before he dies from his wounds. Much to Evelyn’s joy the process works, but Max becomes concerned that the entity they’re speaking to isn’t Will after it immediately asks to be given access to the Internet. Max shuts the project down, but after he leaves, the grieving Evelyn reconnects everything and manages to upload Will to the Net seconds before the terrorists arrive and blow the place up.

From there the movie follows Evelyn and the maybe-Will as they purchase a small desert town (because he now has a computer brain, Will earns tens of millions of dollars online overnight investing in the stock market) and build new labs with the purpose of developing technology to help heal and transform both the human race and the Earth itself. It goes well at first, with Will’s new nanite-based technology performing seeming miracles.

Things start to get creepy, however, when Will begins to modify the minds of the company’s hired help so that he can take control of them if an emergency need arises. Convinced now that the terrorists were correct in their concerns, Max and Joseph join forces with them and make plans to try and shut Will and his man-bots down.

In a certain sense, Transcendence is simply the latest in a long line of films that portrays the possible dangers if science overreaches itself. We’ve seen this kind of thing time and time again ever since Colin Clive stood over Boris Karloff screaming maniacally, “It’s Alive! It’s Alive!” And yet, even though it’s a cliche, and one that tends to irritate a lot of real world scientists by the way, it’s still fun when it’s done well. Transcendence, for the most part, handles it pretty good. Oscar winning cinematographer Wally Pfister takes on the directing chores and he brings to the movie all the visual flair he developed behind the camera on such films as Inception and the Christian Bale Batman series. The movie looks good.

And, as noted, Transcendence also spends some time, at least in the beginning, addressing some of the moral quandaries involved in the idea of transferring a human mind into a computer. Obviously it’s not much of a pr
oblem for atheistic transhumanists like Will because they don’t believe in the existence of souls. But for those who do accept the existence of the soul, it’s a bit more complex, especially if they’re Catholic.

Without turning the review into a technical thesis, it basically comes down to the traditional Christian belief that the mind, that informational part of the human thought process which can be separated from the biophysical components of the brain, is simply one faculty of the soul, not the entirety of the soul itself. So, even if the mind somehow becomes incapacitated, the soul remains. That’s one of the reasons the Church has such an interest in things like the Terry Schiavo case, because even if the mind is not functioning (as far as we can measure), the soul, the animating principle, is still present for as long as life remains in the body. Following that line of reasoning to its logical conclusion, It would mean that whatever science could transfer into a computer, be it an actual mind or just a simulation, wouldn’t really be a person, because it would be soulless.

Sadly, Transcendence doesn’t get that far into the argument. After some lip service, it settles early on for the atheists’ notion that the mind all by itself is the person and runs with it. I suppose if that were the movies only problem, it wouldn’t be so bad. At least you could use it for jumping off points for some interesting after-movie discussions. Unfortunately it has a few problems script-wise as well. None of the characters act consistently, which a couple of times during the movie might have audiences scratching their heads wondering why a certain person was doing one thing when in just the scene before they were dead set on doing the opposite. Seriously, at one point near the end, I thought I must have dozed off for a second because I couldn’t for the life of me figure out one character’s sudden change of heart.

There’s also the fact that the movie just plain gets silly after Will uses his computerized intellect to make a quantum leap in nanotechnology. Technically, I don’t think anything happens in Transcendence that science doesn’t predict nanites will one day be able to do, but for some reason it all just seems way too futuristic (or even magical) for the film and comes across as a lazy excuse to indulge in some flashy CGI. And don’t get me started on why Will doesn’t just immediately infect everybody with all those nanites he has floating around so he can simply rule the world without any resistance. Just don’t go there.

So, yeah, Transcendence has its good and its bad. It’s got a lack of eyeliner, but also a lack of logic. You can use your limited human brain to decide for yourself which is more important.

In a world he didn’t create, in a time he didn’t choose, one man looks for signs of God in the world by… watching movies. When he’s not reviewing new releases for Aleteia, David Ives spends his time exploring the intersection of low-budget/cult cinema and Catholicism at The B-Movie Catechism.

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