Transcendence review: AI yai yai

Transcendence red light

The neo-luddite attitude is bad enough, but the movie commits a far worse sin: it’s dull. If only it worked as a schlocky pile of pulp nonsense, that’d be something…
I’m “biast” (pro): the cast is appealing

I’m “biast” (con): really? evil computer? *sigh*

(what is this about? see my critic’s minifesto)

Human beings, at least in some places on planet Earth, are afforded the presumption of innocence until proven guilty. But somehow, pop culture has unilaterally decided that AI — artificial intelligence — is to be condemned before it even exists. And so we have Transcendence, which feels no need to mess about with any metaphoric applications of Evil Computers — like, say, how The Matrix used AI with a grudge against humanity to craft a seductive metaphor about conformity — but goes straight for the cautionary horror tale: Do not create AI, humanity. It’s one of those things in which man was not meant to meddle.

It really is time we dispensed with this anti-science crap, particularly in movies that require massive computing power to get them up on the big screen.

Transcendence — from cinematographer Wally Pfister making his directorial debut and first-time screenwriter Jack Paglen — also, bizarrely, feels no need to mess about with any actual horror. The neo-luddite attitude is bad enough, but the movie commits a far worse sin: it’s as dull as the empty desert sands and the sterile white labs in which much of it takes place. Pfister and Paglen may in fact believe they were making a serious, solemn drama rather than a schlocky pile of pulp nonsense, but given what we ended up with, the latter seems closer, even if it failed in the attempt.

Cuz most of it doesn’t even make any sense on its own terms. When AI scientist Will Caster (Johnny Depp: The Lone Ranger, Dark Shadows) is on death’s doorstep thanks to a terrorist attack by a rabid bunch of anti-AI nutjobs, his partner and wife, Evelyn (Rebecca Hall: Closed Circuit, Iron Man 3), convinces their other partner (in only a work sense, though there is a lot of huggy-kissy stuff all around, so who knows), Max Waters (Paul Bettany: Iron Man 3, Priest), that they should totally upload Will’s brain to their pet supercomputer, PINN, whom the Casters claim is self-aware but all the other experts doubt. (No evidence is offered either way, but PINN does have a sexy voice that sounds an awful lot like Sigourney Weaver’s, for your fanboy pleasure.) The project seems not to work… so what do these dedicated scientists do? Evelyn is all, “Shut it down! We have to wipe the hard drives!” and Max agrees… because that’s what real scientists do, throw a tantrum and destroy all their data the moment they run into a wall, no need to save it for some future point when a breakthrough might be possible. But never mind: that’s the moment that the Will-PINN-AI wakes up and starts talking. Soon, “he” is all over the Internet and plotting to take over the world.

The narrative idiocy on display here is breathtaking. The anti-science terrorists — led by Kate Mara (Iron Man 2, We Are Marshall) — of course turn out to be correct in their fear-mongering, and indeed the FBI — represented here by Cillian Murphy’s (The Dark Knight Rises, Red Lights) agent — later ends up working with her group to stop the Will-PINN-AI from wrecking havoc. (It’s cool how white terrorists led by a pretty woman get to be right, isn’t it?) When Max ends up working with the terrorists, and later their other other colleague Morgan Freeman (The Lego Movie, Now You See Me) asks him, “How did they turn you?” Max — and the movie — don’t even feel the need to answer, even though it’s a darn good question. Later, the Will-PINN-AI that is genius beyond all capacity for human understanding, smarter than all the human beings who have ever lived ever in the history of the world put together… suddenly isn’t, and is tricked by a thing that it should have been able to counter in a nanosecond.

I knew from the opening moments of the movie, when Max tells us in voiceover that “the Internet was meant to make the world a smaller place” — when it was, in fact, never intended to do any such thing — that this was not going to be a movie about real computer science, but just the ignorant fears connected to wrongheaded ideas about computer science. It’s so wrongheaded in every way that it’s not even worth getting angry about.

If you’re tempted to post a comment that resembles anything on the film review comment bingo card, please reconsider.
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