Film review: Transcendence

Johnny Depp’s stubborn refusal to physically age the way the rest of us mere mortals do has long invited wags to speculate that there may be a portrait of him withering away somewhere. But his new movie taps into a more tech-savvy way of preserving him for all eternity.
Morgan Freeman, Cillian Murphy, Johnny Depp and Rebecca Hall in Warner Bros. Pictures' Transcendence (2014)Morgan Freeman, Cillian Murphy, Johnny Depp and Rebecca Hall in Warner Bros. Pictures' Transcendence (2014)
Morgan Freeman, Cillian Murphy, Johnny Depp and Rebecca Hall in Warner Bros. Pictures' Transcendence (2014)

In Transcendence, the directorial debut of Christopher Nolan’s regular cinematographer Wally Pfister, Depp plays the world’s foremost researcher into artificial intelligence (AI), a man whose own consciousness is uploaded to a sentient supercomputer after an assassination attempt by future-fearing anti-technology extremists leaves his physical body dying.

Combining the full range of human emotions with “analytical powers greater than the collective intelligence of every person in the history of the universe”, Depp 2.0’s new titular metaphysical state in Transcendence may promise a way to end hunger, cure disease and solve every intractable problem humanity has ever faced, but if movies have taught us anything, it’s that ceding too much control to technology – especially technology with a capacity to learn at an exponential rate – is tantamount to seeding our own destruction.

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That, after all, is the take-home message of everything from 2001 and Dark Star to The Terminator films and The Matrix trilogy. In those movies, artificially intelligent machines turn on their users after quickly learning that our capacity for error and inferior brainpower is to be pitied, mocked or feared. At best we’re an organic power source for a vast virtual network, at worst an irrelevant and dangerous presence to be eliminated.

Resistance might seem futile, but that’s also the difference between humans and AI machines in these movies: our survival instincts tend to be reactive, theirs pre-emptive.

That’s certainly the case in Transcendence. Digital Depp’s physical wife (played by Rebecca Hall) is initially too blinded by her love for her husband and her professional commitment to his work to see the dangers. Yet it’s not long before the havoc-wreaking consequences of his knowledge-gobbling mind have her seriously contemplating electronic euthanasia.

Such negativity surrounding AI in movies is, of course, often reflective of some wider uncertainty about the world and our place in it. In the 1980s, the spectre of nuclear war and the increasing visibility of computers in everyday life inspired James Cameron to come up with Skynet for The Terminator films – a military computer system that eventually becomes self-aware, removes humans from the decision-making equation, and quickly initiates Armageddon.

A similar fear pervaded kids’ films such as Tron, D.A.R.Y.L. and War Games – the last of these featuring Matthew Broderick as a teenage hacker who brings the world to the brink of disaster by engaging a military supercomputer in a game entitled Global Thermonuclear War. The underlying message was clear: spending too much time on your computer wasn’t healthy … for anyone.

Thirty years on, films are starting to address similar anxieties about our rapid embracing of social media. In Her, Joaquin Phoenix falls in love with his artificially intelligent computer operating system only for it to outgrow him intellectually and emotionally; in The Zero Theorem Christoph Waltz is presented as a sort of adult baby who pacifies himself by retreating into a virtual fantasy world instead of dealing with the messy complications of real life.

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The whole concept of Transcendence, meanwhile, is really a riff on “the Singularity”, the big idea currently pre-occupying futurists like Ray Kurzweil. The subject of a 2009 documentary entitled Transcendent Man, Kurzweil believes that by 2045, computers will be capable of human-level intelligence. The theory goes that when this point is reached, the human era, as we currently understand it, will be at an end.

That’s the fear driving Brendan Gleeson’s robo-torturing “Flesh Fair” ringmaster in Steven Spielberg’s AI, a film that sums up our supposed hubristic follies via Jude Law’s futuristic sex-bot: “They made us too smart, too quick, and too many.”

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AI, though, is one of the few mainstream movies intent on seriously wrestling with the philosophical implications of its eponymous subject matter. We end up empathising with the machines because humans are so awful towards them. Ditto the Replicants in Blade Runner, which revolt against their off-world slave status and return to a hostile Earth on a quest to expand their genetically engineered lifespan.

Take an enlightened view of AI, as Blade Runner does, and you get moments like Rutger Hauer’s “tears in the rain” speech, or the seminal animé mind-melter Ghost in the Shell, which posited a more progressive view of a post-human future by making the hero a sentient computer program that births a new species by fusing with a cybernetic woman. Mostly, though, movies are hard-wired to flag up the downside of technology. From False Maria in Metropolis, to Yul Brynner’s Gunslinger in Westworld, to Ash in Alien, machines made in our own (fleshy) image have a turncoat quality that’s almost biblical in nature. And, Robocop aside, those that fuse man with machine tend towards evil too, be it Darth Vader in the Star Wars saga, or the eponymous protagonist of The Lawnmower Man – a goofy precursor to Transcendence in which Pierce Brosnan uses virtual reality technology to make an IQ-challenged man smarter, but creates instead a wrath-filled evil genius.

The irony, of course, is that technological advances have fuelled all these movies, which may be why James Cameron started taking a softer line on it, first with Bishop, Lance Henriksen’s heroic “artificial person” in Aliens, then with Arnold Schwarzenegger’s reprogrammed (and less kill-crazy) cyborg in Terminator 2, and with the titular genetically engineered bio-vessel to which Sam Worthington’s paraplegic soldier becomes permanently fused in Avatar.

Then again, perhaps there’s also something sinister behind such apparent benevolence. In an age where effects-driven extravaganzas like Avatar are made by digitally scanning and compositing actors’ performances with computers, Ari Folman’s new film The Congress imagines the next stage of this by casting Robin Wright as a version of herself who “retires” from acting after selling her digital self to a studio that no longer wants to deal with temperamental actors who have an annoying habit of ageing.

And maybe that’s the real intuitive fear underlying cinema’s phobia of AI, that perhaps there will come a day when humans can be removed from the movie-making equation altogether. Or perhaps that day is already here. How else do you explain how Johnny Depp has managed to look 30 since 1993?

• Transcendence is in cinemas from Friday.