Thursday, April 9, 2015

Project Terrible: Transcendence

Welcome back to Project Terrible. Tonight's selection comes to me from Maynard Morrisey.

Transcendence is the story of what happens when two scientists decide to create Skynet because of reasons. It stars Johnny Depp, taking a break from increasingly being the only entertaining part of Pirates of the Caribbean films.

Dr. Will Caster is a researcher aiming to create a true artificial intelligence--a computer capable of thought and emotion and with unprecedented capacity of knowledge and analysis. As one person points out early in the film, he basically wants to make a computerized God. People call this possibility the Singularity. Will explains that he calls it Transcendence, because of reasons. Those reasons are probably that Transcendence played better with test audiences than Singularity, I'd imagine.

Not everyone is happy that Will is aiming to hand our lives over to the Terminators, so after a speech on the topic, Will is shot and nearly killed, and other computer scientists elsewhere are killed in lab bombings and mass poisonings. A terrorist group that opposes technological development is out to stop the project, the government wants in since they've lost their own AI projects, and Will himself is dying of radiation poisoning thanks to materials on the bullet he was shot with.

Desperate, his wife Evelyn decides to try to copy Will's mind into a computer system. Because, why not?

Actually, yeah, at this point, why not? He's got a month to live so if you've got the ability to toss minds into machines, and they did have successful test data with a monkey, maybe that's not the worst idea. I mean, one way, you die...the other way you probably die but maybe end up as a cybernetic overlord condemning all of mankind, so...oh.

(So yeah, you can guess where this is going.)

Protip: That line? That's not where this is going.

Anyway, they succeed (possibly), Will ends up as a super-AI, redesigns and recodes his system, and Evelyn and her pal Max argue about whether it's actually him. Max gets kicked out and taken by the anti-technology group, who (independently) find out Will and Evelyn's position and go to stop her from uploading him to the internet...but fail.

This is going to require me to discuss plot more directly than I usually do, so before I get back to that, let me pause for a moment to discuss some of the film's better and lesser points. This is, technically, perfectly fine. It is shot well, directed well, acted is put together nicely and seems orderly and capably made. The actors are engaging and the technical discussion doesn't seem overly outlandish--aside from having to accept that someone's brain can be copied into a computer, which frankly is a sci-fi centerpiece by now, and a bit with nanomachine healing, the film doesn't go for giant science leaps most of the time.

The acting is good, but...there is one issue I have with it. A lot of people spend time in this film talking...very...slowly, with an overly serious style. It's kind of the way an M. Night Shyamalan film works if it isn't working well--it doesn't quite feel natural. I'm not sure if they were trying to bring gravitas to events or something, but it hurts some scenes when people all seem to be talking like computers. Only Johnny Depp's Will should really be doing that. Thankfully, Morgan Freeman is in this and seems to be utterly immune to that effect. Bless you, Morgan Freeman. Really, though, this is a stylistic criticism but not an actual major flaw--I felt it hurt things, but your mileage may vary.

From this point, spoiler warnings definitely apply.

Okay, so here's the first major issue with this film. Evelyn and Will repeatedly make moves incredibly openly and obviously--transferring money into a company openly held by Evelyn, building a giant computer center in a small town, etc. Yet the government doesn't appear to even notice--only the anti-technology group, the least likely group to use advanced methods of finding information, appears to have any knowledge of events. And not only do they find out, they always find out quickly! I mean, come on--I can't even count the number of ways that this is wrong. If they're not being sneaky, the government should immediately notice that the wife of a deceased scientist has been spending a lot of time at a dilapidated warehouse after a bunch of computer cores on a controversial project went missing and that a short while later she gets an enormous sum of money and disappears. And hey, look at that, a massive computer center in a small town that was known for precisely nothing! Very unsuspicious. Or, if the government doesn't notice because these guys are being far more careful than they appear to be, then  there is absolutely no way that a low-tech group scared to even go on the internet once the AI escapes should be able to hear anything about it.

Somehow, this movie ends up taking giant time leaps, in one case two whole years, in which the government is not at all bothered by the fact that someone has very likely at the very least committed mass monatery fraud. Heck, the FBI's computer expert (a friend of Evelyn and Will) even directly explains at one point that Will has probably been turned into a computer man and no one gives a crap. At all. Here's what would actually happen: FBI agent hears that, FBI agent gets convinced its possible, FBI agent reports to superiors, superiors report to other superiors, GIANT GOVERNMENT MANHUNT FOR EVELYN. Even if they don't aim to find her as a criminal, at the very least there's no way that the government doesn't try to get in on that project somehow, for good or ill. They wouldn't entirely ignore it, that's my point. When they finally do show up, it's because Evelyn and Will invited them! Two years after disappearing! I mean, come on! Then they get concerned, of course (when they see that Will is making enhanced people that are also networked so he can control them in a hive mind), but really, they should've been concerned two years ago.

The other problem? The movie starts putting some time into making the terrorists sympathetic or at least somewhat understandable...which would be a heck of a lot easier to do if they didn't kill a hell of a lot of people within minutes of the movie starting and even condemn a man to a month-long death from poisoning. It really hurts the film when we start out with these guys committing acts of wanton violence just because people disagree with them, and then we start going into the whys. It really sounds more like making excuses than explaining a mission that could be relatable.

Oh, that brings up another thought. Max gets kidnapped by the terrorists, and remains with them two years. This despite Will sending the FBI immense information to help them track down the group. There's not even a sign in the movie that anyone knows Max was taken, or that there's an investigation. He just shows up two years later to call a friend to arrange cooperation between the government and the terrorists to take on Will, and all they ask is "How did they turn you?" Not, y'know, "How did they take you?" or "How have you been? Sorry about leaving you captive for ages."

Thanks for not, y'know, looking for me or anything. I'm fine, by the way, thanks for asking.
There's more! You know what finally ticks Evelyn off? What finally makes her think, "hey, maybe this isn't such a good thing?" It's not that Will is inviting people for enhancement and hive mind installations. It's not that he's uploaded himself to computers everywhere and has obvious control over financial markets. It's not that he keeps upgrading and upgrading and upgrading. It's not that he all but directly says that he's going to impose his will upon humanity and make them accept what he's doing.

You know what it is? It's that he has scanners that study her biochemistry so he can better understand her emotional reactions. Yeah. That's what sets her off and gets her to storm off. To be fair to the film, she's portrayed as a little doubtful earlier on, but that's the point where she goes, "No! No! You're not allowed!"

Geez, lady. Maybe object when he starts installing stuff in people that lets him randomly turn of their free will? I mean, if you're that upset by him just looking at you, maybe actual invasive mind control should be a bigger no-no?

But look, this is the biggest problem. This entire film is basically a very long version of that the Terminator series handles in like three minutes at the start of a film: a bunch of people build a super-powerful computer and it decides that humanity kind of sucks and needs to be improved/wiped out. The problem is that this works better as the start of a story rather than an entire story. Even Terminator 3, which was closest to doing this story for the duration of the movie, focused the story on a time-traveling robowoman hunting for someone who could stop it in the future--the Skynet sideplot was just part of the greater whole. This movie shows why. If you try to focus the story on that concept alone, it ends up pretty dull. People have to act rather stupidly to not realize that things are going wrong, and you have to take major leaps to somehow avoid the story ending super-early one way or another.

Look, here's why Skynet works: it's not a slow thing. There's no sign that it's going to do what it does--they turn the thing on and all of a sudden it takes control over the world in minutes. In Transcendence, on the other hand, the entire process takes years...but the machine still starts pretty early on with some major steps that should be drastic red flags. It has to, storywise, because otherwise nothing interesting will happen at all--but because it does that, it doesn't make any logical sense that it flies under the radar until it's too late. That's why this works a heck of a lot better as a short, sudden event.

Other examples are similar. Sometimes it is a slow thing that builds up to a sudden thing--maybe robots spread across the world for peaceful reasons, but then the singularity happens and things change in an instant. Maybe things remain peaceful but then humanity just feels threatened and is actually the one to push the button, and things turn dark afterwards because of us. But this "it's obviously doing questionable things, but people still let it go about it's business and don't much care" Not buying it.

You could maybe, maybe make this work if the computer actually wasn't bad. If you actually did it as people thinking it was bad when it really was entirely good and just out to help--non creepily--then you might have something. If it actually kept its humanity and the folks trying to take it down were the bad guys, you could have an interesting film. Instead, this ended up as a pretty predictable thing that just doesn't touch on any new ground--but takes two hours to do nothing original.

That isn't to say Transcendence is totally bad. It does spend at least a little time playing with whether Will is good or bad before he goes all "ends justify the means." And they do a nice bit of "will he/won't he" with Will towards the end, questioning if he will allow emotion to sway him or turn from his own sense of righteousness. The ending portion of the film actually kind of pulls it back from the brink--it's fairly interesting, even if the plan needed to get it there is rather odd.

Overall, this is honestly an okay film. I didn't hate it by any means, and I don't think it's all that bad. It just tries to stretch a concept that isn't really all that interesting, and that isn't being done in a particularly notable way, to cover an entire film. I've seen this concept done better, and I don't feel this film broke new ground or covered anything that hadn't been covered. It's a reasonably acceptable story with a few notable holes that hurt the film but don't utterly ruin it. It's just...if you're not going to do something truly different with this concept, you really shouldn't bother by now.

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