Mission takes on mind of its own
Johnny Depp. Picture: Supplied

FILM
Transcendence (M)
2.5 stars
Johnny Depp, Rebecca Hall, Paul Bettany
Directed by Wally Pfister
REVIEW MARK NAGLAZAS

After the sensuality and subtlety of Her, in which Scarlett Johansson plays an operating system with a mind of its own, we're now back in the more conventional sci-fi universe with Transcendence, in which computers are depicted not as helpers to mankind but their enemy.

However, Transcendence promises something a little different in that the computer in question is a melding of machine and man, a combination of the cold-blooded logic of a system built on zeroes and ones and the capriciousness and flaws of even the most logical of humans.

The man in question is a visionary scientist named Will Caster who is working towards creating a computer that will achieve "singularity" or "transcendence", a machine that will bring together the accumulated knowledge of all mankind and the ability to think and make its own decisions.

Indeed, Max goes so far as to believe that such a machine will be exactly like what we imagine God to be.

When Will is fatally wounded by a group of anti-technology revolutionaries, his colleague-wife Evelyn (Rebecca Hall) and his best friend and fellow scientist Max Walters (Paul Bettany), who has been doing advanced research into artificial intelligence, make the bold decision to upload his brain into the quantum computer on which he's been working.

Once merged with the computer - indeed, all the computers in the world via the internet - Will takes steps not just to protect himself from the luddite revolutionaries and the American government, who are worried what he might do. He creates a command centre in a sleepy desert town with the aid of the devoted Evelyn, using millions plucked from the stockmarket to set up a laboratory that will allow him to realise his dream of solving all of mankind's ills - pollution, disease, even mortality - with his new God-like power.

The idea of a man merging his personality with a computer is fascinating. It brings into focus some of the most pressing issues of the day, such as what happens to our humanity in the face of cold logic, be it machines or the marketplace.

However, Depp is such a bland performer when not playing loveable crackpots he virtually disappears in Transcendence, leaving an emotional and intellectual hole at the centre of an otherwise polished, handsome- looking movie, the directorial debut of Christopher Nolan's regular cinematographer Wally Pfister.

How much more interesting would Transcendence be if the man and the machine came into conflict instead of just fusing into a menacing but dull entity?

He could have even emerged as a figure with tragic dimension, with the power and compunction to do good clashing with his lack of compassion for mere humanity.

But the real problem with Transcendence is that it starts out as interesting speculative science fiction that investigates the advantages and dangers of artificial intelligence and morphs into a wild action-fantasy more akin to Lord of the Rings.

Nanotechnology, which Will's laboratory races to develop, is real and will no doubt alter what we think of as human and what is mechanical.

But to have Will repairing damaged flesh then creating whole bodies pushes Transcendence so far out of the realm of science and into the realm of the fantastical you half expect him to do battle with Thor or Iron Man.

But this is typical of contemporary Hollywood, where having power over the world's communication networks, financial markets and nuclear arsenals is not awesome enough. It needs magic.

Unfortunately, magic is exactly what will be needed to restore the career of Depp, which is disappearing so fast somebody better upload what's left into a product audiences want to buy.

The West Australian

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