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Movie Review: Transcendence

By Edited Sep 29, 2016 0 0

Certificate 12A, 119 minutes

Director: Wally Pfister

Stars: Johnny Depp, Rebecca Hall, Morgan Freeman

Transcendence starts off, briefly, in Berkley, California, in a time when technology has ceased to work because there seems to be no means of powering it, before going back five years into the past. Dr. Will Caster (Johnny Depp, Dark Shadows, Mortdecai) is a researcher into Artificial Intelligence (AI), who is giving a lecture on AI at a conference called Evolve the Future when there are attacks on AI labs and researchers across America. The attacks include explosions, shootings and other methods, killing off many of the leading researchers into AI. Will himself gets shot, before the shooter kills himself. He, and his colleague Joseph Tagger (Morgan Freeman) at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, appear to be some of the few survivors of the attacks, as the bullet just grazed Will. The attacks were carried out by a terrorist group called R.I.F.T., which stands for Revolutionary Independence from Technology, and is apparently led by a young woman called Bree (Kate Mara). The group fears technology, and AI in particular, although they are themselves a pretty hi-tech operation.

As it happens, Will did not actually survive, as the bullet was laced with polonium (a rare and highly dangerous radioactive element that has been used to kill people in real life[1]), and he suffers from fatal radiation poisoning. His wife, Evelyn (Rebecca Hall), enlists the help of their friend, Max Waters (Paul Bettany, Avengers: Age of Ultron, Captain America: Civil War), to upload Will's intelligence into a machine - making an artificial intelligence by using an existing intelligence, rather than by manufacturing a new one. Despite his misgivings, Will agrees to help and, with the use of some quantum processors taken from Will's experimental machine PINN (Physically Independent Neural Network), they set up a lab in an abandoned school and begin the process.

The AI - whether or not it is actually Will is a matter of debate - gains access to the internet and becomes vastly more powerful. It quickly evolves and earns large amounts of money, so that Evelyn and the uploaded Will can build a massive facility in the desert in a town called Brightwood. Two years pass, and the machine has made substantial advances in nanotechnology, and can start fixing people. Which means there are people who have been augmented by the machine Will, with bits of nanotechnology in them.

Despite what it may appear from the trailer, this is not an action film by any definition. There is some action, near the end, but this a slow paced film. It is instead a more thoughtful film, exploring some common fears - nanotechnology and artificial intelligence - and, to some extent, questions what makes a person a person. Evelyn is convinced that the uploaded Will is still Will; Max, on the other hand, believes the opposite. Which of them is right? The quantum processors used in the film to host PINN and later Will are beyond current technology, although extensive research is being carried out into quantum computing.

Uploading an AI to the internet is not an original idea. In Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines Skynet did that too. The fear of AI is a common one in science fiction, at least partly because no-one knows what a created AI will actually do. Will it try to exterminate mankind, as it did in the Terminator franchise? Or will they take over civilisation and run it as a benevolent dictatorship, as they did in Neal Asher's Polity series? Or will it be something else entirely? Certainly, portraying AIs as hostile is rather common, and dates back years. This film poses some of these questions too, but does not really provide any new answers. Some of the scenes in Transcendence are pretty good visually, but the film is lacking a certain something, and the result portrayed at the beginning of the film is a rather optimistic picture of what would happen to civilisation without power.
Transcendence egdcltd 2014-04-25 3.0 0 5


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  1. "Polonium." Wikipedia. 26/04/2014 <Web >

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