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Transcendence (2014)
Yesterday, Dr. Will Caster was only human...
Filmmaker(s): Wally Pfister

Two leading computer scientists work toward their goal of Technological Singularity, as a radical anti-technology organization fights to prevent them from creating a world where computers can transcend the abilities of the human brain.

Transcendence (2014)

Behind the Screens

One of my angels die when I encounter a film like this. It has a mix of things that disturb and disappoint. A minor but essential problem is that the actors do a bad job. All of these men at least has had superb moments in others films, but even Depp is flat here. I can only think this is due to a filmmaker who couldn’t arouse them.

Oh, and once again we have this story of AI, as if it were written by newspaper people in the 90’s. Better to have not called it AI, but machine hosting of human consciousness. And gosh, do people really think a computer virus and human virus are the same? Movies can engage when they seem real enough for us to enter the world of the film. That world doesn’t have to be believable if the filmmaker gives us enough excuses to avoid the problems. But we need one or the other: it either has to not be stupid, or it has to give us easy shortcuts to enter it anyway.

But the big travesty is the cinematic vacuum. We have forgiven science fiction filmmakers many times, as long as they deliver the goods. We know this filmmaker has been in meetings where great, deep and specific cinematic concerns have been discussed, because he has worked with Nolan from the beginning.

A simple diagnosis is that he was a bit overwhelmed with the issues here and simply got some bad advice about how to display intelligence within a system. But I think it goes deeper than that. The very notion of the script was broken, I think.

Possibly the greatest challenge in film is that the most powerful things in life are not well conveyed visually, even though our visual storytelling techniques are the most powerful we have. And we do have some things that are powerful as cinematic images. The trick is show one thing than can be shown in ways that have effect, and have the viewer associate that with another thing that matters in their lives.

Love is the common example. Love matters to us, but you can’t show love or any other emotion. You can only show effect, or maintain some parallel narrative that is cinematic. That is why we have great love stories set in great political upheavals. Or within a related story with tension.

This script has a great love story. A man dies and is reborn. He commits his new life to his wife. Others in the world doubt his goodness and she comes to as well. In a convoluted plot device, in order to join together, they have to kill each other. At the very end, we have some hope that they are reborn, together in a private universe.

This is strong stuff, full of urge and engagement. I can imagine this story being told in a way that affects me deeply, and that I use ever after in how I live and love. But you can’t tell that story in film, you have to show another one that evokes it. This is non-trivial and risky, because the default connections are boring.

Add this to our preconceptions of AI: It has something to do with human intelligence; the internet is something (as opposed to a collection of somethings); nanotech has something to do computing; a face on a screen matters in this advanced context; computers are or need blinking lights; an advanced intelligence would not be internally conflicted…

… And you get both a boring and an annoying experience. It would have been so much more engaging if we saw the conflict among urges in this new being. If we saw how that was reflected in the bodies it partially inhabited. If we saw hunger for sense and sex. If we saw dalliances world wide. If we saw women soldiers who understood this love story.

I find Morgan Freeman appalling in almost everything. But the one thing he can do better than nearly everyone is explain. They decided to show a little here then explain a little. That balance could have been explain monkey sex once, then do nothing but show. Urges. They could have shown urges instead of screens.

Posted in 2015

Ted’s Evaluation — 1 of 3: You can find something better to do with this part of your life.


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