Fearful Symmetries

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22 April, 2014

Deus in Machina: Transcendence



Like many people, I spent Sunday reflecting on a man who dies and then is resurrected. Unlike Christians who celebrated the death and rebirth of one incarnation of their tripartite deity, I was at my local IMAX cinema watching Johnny Depp's death and resurrection in Transcendence.

Transcendence is the directorial debut of Wally Pfister, a cinematographer best known for his work with Christopher Nolan. Pfister surely knows how to lens a movie but I recalled the last time a DP whose work I respected tried his hand at directing - Lost Souls. Janusz Kaminski took a break from shooting Steven Spielberg's film to make this mediocre horror flick. Would Pfister fare any better?

The movie begins with a brief prelude featuring a man who we will come to know as Max wandering the streets of a city that has no electricity. Streetlights are dark, broken cell phones litter the ground, and a laptop is used to prop open a door. He makes his way into a backyard where he kneels before two sunflowers and begins to eulogize two of his friends.

Flashing back a couple years, we are introduced to Will (Johnny Depp) and Evelyn Caster (Rebecca Hall). Will is an artificial intelligence researcher and his wife is trying to get him motivated to get to a conference where potential funders for his project can be found. Will is the dreamer type while Evelyn is more pragmatic. He focuses on getting a computer to be self-aware, much to the detriment of bathing and sartorial choices, while she plays the mom and gets him to change into something presentable.

After his speech, in which he admits to essentially "playing God", Will is shot by a member of a group called RIFT (Revolutionary Independence From Technology) which launches attacks other AI research labs at the same time. Will survives only to discover that the bullet that he was shot with was laced with polonium and he is fated to die a slow, painful death from radiation poisoning. Evelyn recalls that Will had uploaded the "consciousness" of a monkey into his super-mega quantum computer and decides to upload Will's into it so that he may live on. Max questions this decision and whether the transferring the electrical activity of Will's brain into a computer will create something that can fairly be called Will.

At this point the movie has introduced a fair amount of interesting thematic ideas. What is consciousness? Is our humanity merely an admittedly highly complex series of electrical impulses? Unfortunately, we get a rather generic action/thriller. After Will asks to be connected to the Internet, Evelyn and Max have a falling out which leaves Evelyn to care for the electronic simulacrum of her husband alone. RIFT kidnap Max and learn of Will's transubstantiation. Meanwhile Will asks that he be connected to the Internet so that he can expand his capabilities.

With RIFT closing in, Evelyn moves to upload Will to the cloud via a satellite connection. Luckily there were no birds looking for a spot to perch and the consciousness of a human being is only a megabyte or so in size because she only had a couple of minutes to complete the upload. I wonder what file type the human consciousness comes in - .will?

With Will living on somehow on the Internet, he plays the stock market and makes tens of millions, if not more, for a company owned by Evelyn and then directs her to a small desert town called Brightwood where she is to build an underground data center where Will can live on and carry out his nebulous plan. The place ends up being massive with an even more enormous farm of solar panels powering the whole thing. Of course no one in the federal government at-large seems to notice that a very large computer laboratory is being built in the desert nor a vast amount of data traffic to and from some podunk town in the southwest. Maybe Will used IP6 and IANA never noticed.

Once fully armed and operational, Will miraculously becomes an expert in nanotechnology and begins experimenting on some of the local contractors making them into superheroes with incredible strength the and power to regenerate. In fact, Will is so goddamn good, he can grow a copy of his old body in the lab. Will has become a god and his ability to monitor Evelyn's limbic system in real time so perturbs that she loses trust in him and escapes his clutches. She is captured by the FBI who joins forces with RIFT and Will's buddy Joseph, who also ran an AI lab, to make their last stand for humanity. They get themselves some machine guns, a mortar, and a couple howitzers. Oh, and a computer virus which take out Will's systems as well as every other computer system on the planet. The plan calls for Evelyn to be infected with the virus so that, when Will uploads her consciousness into his system, it becomes infected. Bullets and explosives don't cut it against nanobots and the augmented contractors. It all comes to the bad ass RIFT lady threatening Max's life to get Will to upload the virus himself and end it all.

Perhaps it's because I work in IT but I just can't look beyond the techno-asshattery in this movie. Here the Internet is essentially magic instead of being a bunch of computers connected together. You just take a technology, add the Internet and – voila! – you have a god-like power. During the sequence when Will is being uploaded to his quantum computer, we see that it is a process that takes weeks. His face is scanned and Will is recorded reading the OED so that his likeness and voice can later be used in the interface. This takes weeks yet, after this, everything is done is done lickety split. Where did Evelyn upload Will's consciousness to? You don't upload something to the Internet, you upload it to a computer on the Internet. The electronic Will can advance nanotechnology beyond our wildest dreams, can build his old wetware body from scratch but he can't advance solar panel technology beyond the point of needing a few square miles of panels?

Beyond the IT realm, Transcendence disappoints in other ways. For instance, the world is faced with the gravest threat it's ever known short of nuclear war and all that humanity can muster in its defense is a handful of anti-technology radicals, a few G-men, a mortar, and a couple howitzers?

Moving onto the acting, I have to say that this move was a colossal waste. Johnny Depp spends a short while at the beginning playing a bland genius before spending the rest of his time doing a mediocre HAL 9000 imitation. Morgan Freeman as Joseph just called in his umpteenth performance as the wizened mentor. There was nothing unique or animated about anyone's performance here. For the most part, people stood around watching Will's next move in a mixture of awe and fear. The story didn't help much. The scene where the simulacrum of Will comes alive in the computer was positively anti-climactic. There was no time to dwell on such a momentous occasion because we had to race to Will's apotheosis. Indeed, there was no time to dwell on much at all. Why bother to consider questions about the nature of consciousness or our relationship with technology when Max has to be kidnapped and solar panels have to be erected? I think more time was devoted to showing nanobots rebulding those solar panels destroyed by mortar fire than to considering the "big questions" posed in the opening minutes of the film.

Another example of this comes at the end of the movie. The fully-resurrected Will and Evelyn are lying on a bed dying. Will reveals that the electronic simulacrum was really the old Will and that he did everything in order to bring her dream of a better world to fruition. Awwww. While a nice, tidy way to end a love story, the whole revelation was a dud because A) the movie avoided discussing whether or not the thing that the characters considered to be Will could really be loaded onto a computer and B) Will and Evelyn's relationship wasn't developed enough. The script sets Will up as an Apollonian figure – and individual who uses the human capacity of reason to its full extent while Evelyn is the Dionysian figure – she's all about advancing or healing the whole of humanity and is emotional. Will's cold expressions and voice dominate his UI while Evelyn cries and gets angry. But these antipodean dispositions don't conflict or intermingle very much and so, when Will gives his confession, it didn't feel like it resolved much. Rather than a relationship tempered by opposing outlooks ending with a bang, it limped to a conclusion with a whimper.

Transcendence reminded me of many cinematic adaptions of Philip K. Dick novels. Take the interesting concepts and then ignore them as ideas and instead use them as springboards for excitement, action, violence, and fresh fruit!


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|| Palmer, 3:30 PM

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