Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Transcendence (2014) – Review

Review: Transcendence is an interesting sci-fi film that works more as a philosophical debate on whether technology’s progression is a benefit or hindrance to man than an action thriller. The film is about scientists Will and Evelyn Caster and their work on artificial intelligence. On the verge of a breakthrough, Will is mortally poisoned with radiation by a revolutionary (terrorist) organization ‘RIFT’. In an effort to save his mind, Evelyn with the help from another scientist, Max Waters, conceives of the idea to upload Will’s consciousness on their AI interface. RIFT tries to stop them, fearing what a machine with this much power could mean and do (having watched The Terminator presumably thousands of times, or maybe they are just creeped-out by The Brave Little Toaster, i.e. self-aware, talking machines). Evelyn, however, succeeds and gives Will’s now upload consciousness access to the internet. Will quickly sets in motion a plan for his eventual takeover of the world. RIFT and US Government join forces to try and stop him.

Transcendence is marketed as a big action thriller with sci-fi inclinations – something big and ambitious similar to the films of Christopher Nolan (who executively produces the film); however, first-time director Wally Pfister (who previously shot seven Nolan’s films) has created a film that is not an action thriller, and really does not feature much action at all. Pfister is much more interested in digging deeper into the question of what advancing technology means for humanity than seeing engrossing action set pieces. He wants Transcendence to engage its audience on a higher level than purely entertainment. For those willing to accept the film as such, it is intellectually and philosophically fascinating.

One of the main moral question is seems to ask is what is the importance of freedom to humanity? If the world can be made a better place with a future than is truly superior in comparison to today, is it worthwhile if we must sacrifice some of our freedoms? This is a question that is very much relevant today socially and politically. Our national security is always seemingly brought up when the government wishes to infringe upon our freedoms (our privacy, freedom of speech, and so on). Is our supposed safety a priority above these freedoms? This is a question also asked in this month’s Captain America: The Winter Soldier. Transcendence, however, takes it a bit further. Humans by nature seem to not know what is really best for themselves, others, the Planet, or really anything else, as we are all of us ruled by our own self-interest – what we believe is right for us in any given moment. What we think is right is often incorrect in the grand scheme; thus, should we surrender a portion or even all of our free will in order to support a system (political, social, ecological, and so on) that functions ubiquitously in the benefit of everyone? We would be better off, but we would not be in charge of our own lives, and would we even be human anymore without choice? This is a theme explored in countless utopian/dystopian sci-fi films (and books).

Pfister also delves into the question of man’s soul both in terms of what makes a person himself and what actually constitutes a soul. The soul is often recognized as the thing that defines each of us as ourselves. It encompasses our collective experiences and memories – our hopes, dreams, fears. In many religions, it is the soul that passes on to the next realm, leaving our decaying body behind. Yet, if our consciousness (which is essentially our soul) can be uploaded from our brain onto a new platform, specifically a processing interface, what does that mean for the soul? This is something somewhat catastrophic for religious views as if our consciousness can be transferred (or copied) by encoding the electrical impulses within our brain then the soul is no longer a valid idea as being an entity that exists within but also separate to our body. If consciousness is merely a product of our brain chemistry then when our brain dies so do we as beings (not just our body with our consciousness passing on). But this then asks the question: what is the soul? Is our soul our consciousness or is it something more intangible? If our consciousness can be copied or transferred to a different platform, what does that mean for our soul? Is our soul separate from our consciousness? Is what makes us who we are more than just our collective experiences and memories? Does the soul add something more, making us human? But if the soul is separate from our consciousness, what happens to that part of us when we die? Pfister does not want to answer these questions with his film; rather, he merely wants to engage his audience by asking these questions, as really there are not tangible answers.

Technology’s advancement is also explored in an interesting duality. The film seemingly makes Will the villain once his consciousness is given the computational power of an advanced AI system. He seemingly wants to enslave humanity so that everyone and everything will serve his end. As humans, we are seemingly biologically conditioned to fight for our freedoms. Will taking them away is what makes him the villain in our eyes – even if his endgame is in the benefit of all mankind. But Pfister takes it a step farther as well. At what point does technology infringe upon the laws of nature? The idea of a god has always held power because we are limited – we live, we die, we cannot create on the same grand level, we cannot give life to the same extent. But what if these truths are no longer true? To some extent, the advancement in technology and medicine that we have seen has already given us the power to create and extent life outside of what our biology would allow (and we have always had the power to take life). Yet, our mortality will always set us apart from the gods. But what if technology gave us the ability to be immortal? Are we then too not gods ourselves? We can create. We can destroy. And now too, we are eternal. Thus, is there a point at which humanity should no longer allow technology to progress? To keep gods and man separate. To preserve nature’s laws.

I found Transcendence to be very interesting in regards to its ability to explore big philosophical ideas and questions. Yet, there are some issues that do hold it back. Chiefly, it is structured as almost a sci-fi horror/thriller, but it lacks a thrilling payoff that we are conditioned by our knowledge of narratives to expect. The film, thusly, feels slow and lacks a satisfying punch. To some extent, the film is Invasion of the Body Snatchers for the first two acts (or for fans of Angel, Will is seemingly a version of season four’s big bad Jasmine), but then retreats from that narrative vehicle to solely ask bigger intellectual questions – which is fine; but as the marketing has billed it as something of an event blockbuster, there is a disconnect in expectations versus reality, which will leave many disappointed.

On a side note, Pfister is one of the staunchest advocates for film stock over digital (as is Christopher Nolan). He shot the film on 35mm film and finished the film photochemically without a digital intermediate (which is very rare these days – on both accounts). Transcendence, then, can be maybe read as a struggle between film stock and digital. Yes, digital can do all these great things, but it still seems to lack the wonder and magic of film.

Technical, aesthetic & acting achievements: Making his feature directing debut, it is clear that Wally Pfister is very influenced by Christopher Nolan. Transcendence was even a project Nolan was considering before beginning work on Interstellar, giving it to Pfister thinking that it would be a good fit. The film is beautifully shot and designed, and Pfister gets good performances from his cast. The narrative too is very ambitious for a first time director, as it tries to balance the scale of a blockbuster with its intellectual, philosophical aspirations. Pfister does a fine job, but he does not quite get the balance and pacing right, as again the film does feel a bit slow and ultimately not as satisfying as it could (should). That said, I do look forward to his next project as a director. I also wonder if he will shoot anymore films in the future as he is one of the best.

Mychael Danna’s score is fantastic. It is inquisitive, booming, and above all very captivating. It gives the film an additional layer of emotional gravitas. Jess Hall’s cinematography is also very good. It must be difficult to shoot a film for one of the very best former directors of photography, but Hall delivers work that is probably his best to date. The lighting gives the film such a wonderful and fitting ambiance. Chris Seagers’s production design is top notch as well. The film feels a little bit like science fiction, especially with his wonderful lab sets that are classically very white, clean, sterile; but, his work also grounds the film in reality with other sets that feel very rooted in today’s world (the set for the old, dilapidated town even seems to create the sense that humanity’s present has eroded away, giving way to the future – making it a great backdrop to Will’s main lab).

The acting in the film is solid throughout, even faced with many underwritten characters. Morgan Freeman, Kate Mara, and Cillian Murphy all have smaller roles in Transcendence, but each brings something. Freeman does a version of his typical character – the man who to some extent explains things to another character (and subsequently to the audience); but even so, he does it with such skill and class that it works every time. Mara plays Bree, the head of RIFT. She is somewhat of an ambiguous, under-developed character (in terms of being someone who exists to a greater extent than merely serving a plot point), but Mara nonetheless brings a nice edge to the character and an emotional sincerity. Murphy too is under-developed as FBI Agent Buchanan, charged with stopping Will. Yet, like Freeman and Mara, he brings enough to the role to overcome the overall lack of character above moving the plot forward. Paul Bettany plays Max Waters, a scientist and friend who helps Evelyn Caster upload Will’s consciousness. Bettany is very good in the film as he struggles with the moral questions of what they are really doing. It is easy to get lost in science, forgetting the wonder and meaning of life and the world around us. Bettany is very good in being a relatable anchor for the audience amidst all the technical jargon and lofty ideas. Rebecca Hall is in some ways the film’s main character, as it is her struggle to first save Will and then later her realization that maybe Will is not acting in a manner that benefits humanity, rather he is trying to enslave the world. Her scenes inside the lab with Will are fantastic and play like those of a horror film, as Will’s disembodied voice and a computer rendered image of his face follower her around, always watching. Hall is very good in the film, and pulls the audience in emotionally. Her performance is a big reason the film works (in addition to its outstanding aesthetics). Johnny Depp has the difficult role of playing a character who is mostly not seen but heard (although, I think that he is not nearly as good as Scarlett Johansson was in Her, and he has the benefit really giving a more physical performance in many ways). Depp walks the line between sincerity and creepy as a face on a monitor, while in life he plays Will as higher-level intellectual – not bothered by such mundane things as money or matters of everyday life, wholly confident in his academic life, but also completely physically and emotionally dependent, almost childlike, as well.

Summary & score: Transcendence asks big questions, and to this regard it is intellectually and philosophically interesting and engaging; but it terms of being an entertaining blockbuster, it is a bit lacking. 6/10

No comments:

Post a Comment