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Buried on Netflix: Transcendence starring Johnny Depp

Sunflower - Juliana Arruda

The contemporary version of the classic Frankenstein monster might be a computer or AI that runs amok.  I can’t really argue with such ideas.  It seems like a logical progression in storytelling for the current climate.  Such a tale is presented here in Transcendence starring Johnny Depp.  Shockingly, the rest of the cast is composed of some Grade A actors.  This is a star-studded affair on paper.

In addition to Depp playing Will Caster, you also have Morgan Freeman, Cillian Murphy, Paul Bettany, Kate Mara, and Rebecca Hall.  I was personally not familiar with Hall, who actually plays the biggest role opposite Will, his wife Evelyn.  The couple seem to be neuroscientists of some kind who both striving to achieve great things for the world, commercial applications be damned.  Bettany plays their friend and colleague, Max, who is also some sort of neuroscientist.

Johnny DeppIf the above comes off as vague, it’s because I never got a great read on these people’s area of expertise.  They all seem to do work involving the human brain and matching an A.I. to it.  They seem to be neuroscientists that are somehow also great with computers.  I don’t know that the movie ever gets much more technical than that.  Now that’s always a bad thing necessarily.  I rolled with it here, but this is an issue that crops up a bit later as well.

The movie begins with Will striving to create an all-knowing AI.  It would amass all the information in the world and create limitless solutions all kinds of problems.  He has already created something close, but ultimately wants what would, in effect, be a god of information.

Unfortunately, Will is shot by a terrorist group that aims to unplug the entire world.  They fear his ideas will lead to a world completely bound by electronics and the internet.  As he slowly dies from a radiated bullet, Evelyn and Max hook him up to a bunch of machines in order to convert his entire brain into information.  This will make Will himself, or at least his electronic representation, the all-knowing A.I. he strove to create and improve the world with.

Science things happen, and to the characters’ surprise, it actually works.  Will’s afterlife avatar is online, amassing all the information there is to know about everything.  He quickly assesses the stock market and makes some quick millions so that he and Evelyn can build a remote data facility.  Here, they can foster information gathering and then make astounding advances in technology.

At first Will’s all-knowing data center creates medical marvels and infrastructural wonders.  They heal injured people and make them even stronger, to the point where they can lift hundreds of pounds with ease.  They can cure blindness as well.  Will’s AI is creating nanomachines to make all this happen.  Meanwhile, Max is captured and turned by the anti-technology terrorist group.  He now sets out to destroy Will’s AI given he has written papers in the past warning of this type of tech.  During the film he is also never convinced that “Will” is nothing more than a computer program with its own goals in mind.

We know how this will all turn out.  The A.I. will go too far.  Evelyn will have to make a choice.  The Rebecca Hallthrilling conclusion will somehow involve action even though this is a story about artificial intelligence.  You know what though?  I honestly enjoyed this movie pretty thoroughly.  Now I won’t say that it doesn’t have its problems.  The last 30 minutes or so strains all credulity.  You can make large (really large) leaps to justify everything going on up until that point.  Nanomachines really are a thing being developed, and an AI that can accumulate all knowledge available on the internet is far from impossible.

When the movie nears the end it gets a little crazy though.  Things start happening that you’re really not sure you can justify even as an enormous sci-fi fan.  There’s a bit of unwelcome genre bending near the end as well.  I wouldn’t blame someone for being mildly entertained, then downright offended by the final confrontation.

Even though the cast is kind of exceptional, many of the actors aren’t given much to do.  Morgan Freeman is almost a spare part and Cillian Murphy’s role as a generic FBI agent could’ve been handled by anyone.  Kate Mara is underutilized as the leader of the anti-tech group in my opinion.  Hall is actually great and I am interested to see more of her.  If she appears as a weak link among the others, it’s quite the contrary on film.  Easily the best acting in the movie on top of it being the most demanding role.

It added up to a good movie for me.  Good by normal standards at least, where Hollywood insists on punctuating every movie with bombast.  You certainly have to give some leeway for some absurdity, believe me.  Also, a couple times early on the plot moves forward because characters somehow become aware of info you don’t remember them actually receiving prior.  A few things move forward “because the plot says so” as FilmBrain would say.

Even with all that, I still recommend it.  There is a lot of “because science” moments.  The ending gets somewhat stupid as well.  I like the premise though, and the production values are very good.  Plus I’m not sure how technical a movie like this should really get.  Watch it.  Transcendence starring Johnny Depp is a watch-and-forget kind of movie at worst.  At best it’ll give you a little to think about, even if it crashes on landing.

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