‘Transcendence’ looks to future, gets stuck in present

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Movies have always had a bit of a contentious relationship with technology. It seems that every time a new technological breakthrough is on the horizon, there is a cinematic apocalypse not far behind.

The breakthrough that has this film in a tizzy is quite fittingly called “Transcendence.” Commonly referred to as the singularity, transcendence is the point in time when artificial intelligence surpasses human intelligence. After that, no one can predict what may happen to society.

Will Caster, a brilliant scientist played by Johnny Depp, claims that this artificial intelligence will soon surpass the collective intelligence of every human that ever lived. As one might expect, not everyone is happy about this development.

An anti-tech terrorist organization called R.I.F.T. stages attacks on artificial intelligence labs all over the country and tries to assassinate Caster.

Caster manages to survive the attack, but unfortunately he is hit with one of those magic bullets you only see in movies that gives him only a month to live.

He seems resigned to his fate, but his wife Evelyn, played by Rebecca Hall, is determined to keep him alive. She attempts to somehow record his mind before he dies in hopes of uploading his consciousness to a computer.

The story seems fairly compelling in its own right. And while there’s quite a bit of promise here, “Transcendence” finds a way to squander almost everything it has going for it.

The film has so many gaps in logic that it constantly pulls the audience out of experience. Characters seem to switch sides on a whim, and the entire government seems to be run by one person with no oversight whatsoever.

The star-studded cast, which includes Morgan Freeman, Kate Mara and Cillian Murphey, is criminally underused. Depp is resigned to doing his best HAL 9000 impersonation for most of the movie while the rest of the cast settles for explaining the plot.

The saving grace here is how great the movie looks. First time director Wally Pfister strays from the standard blockbuster formula every once in a while to focus on refreshingly simple things.

For example, the film opens with a mesmerizing shot of water droplets cascading down a window. To Pfister’s credit, the film isn’t boring to look at, it’s just boring to think about. Pfister attempts to tackle some high concept themes in the form of a big science fiction thriller, which is no small task.

Most of the film has the characters arguing about the pros and cons of transcendence, whether or not Caster is really alive, and whether or not his actions are ethical.

There are two problems with this approach. Firstly, the characters are underdeveloped and are reduced to acting as mouthpieces for different philosophies. Most of them feel more like walking, talking dissertations instead of real people.

Secondly, “Transcendence” is bad at communicating its themes. It seems like the film is trying to get the audience to make its own decisions about humanity and our relationship to technology, but it doesn’t present any compelling arguments. The film goes for ambiguity, but it ends up feeling muddled and confused.

It’s actually kind of astonishing that “Transcendence” can’t do anything well with such an intriguing premise. Perhaps the film could have drawn a comparison between Caster’s transformation and the increasingly digital nature of our lives. Instead, it focuses on the actions of a few without giving much thought to humanity as a whole.

“Transcendence” is a missed opportunity. It raises some interesting questions, yet offers nothing but panic and confusion in the way of answers. It may succeed in stimulating deeper thoughts about humanity and its destiny, but “Transcendence” simply fails as a film.

Connor Kelley is a junior in accounting. Please send all comments to edge@kstatecollegian.com.

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