“Singularity” made the cover of Time in 2011, in an article written by Lev Grossman, that was spooky and fascinating. It seems that the computer that can beat a human opponent at chess will one day be smarter than us. The term, Singularity, refers to a period when, according to the Time article, we will be completely at the mercy of computer technology, which will surpass us in intelligence. Life on Earth will never be the same.
The date given for Singularity to take effect: 2045, though some scientists believe it will be much sooner. Visions of The Terminator play through my mind, though my skepticism causes me to wonder just how much danger we could all be in. After all, couldn’t we just hit the Off switch? Is my cell phone, which only works half the time, a possible accessory to the machine takeover? Should I regard my toaster suspiciously? Also, if computers really took over and give mankind the big middle finger, would anyone living on an Amish farm in Pennsylvania notice?
This mixture of mockery and wonder was also my state of mind while viewing Transcendence, a sci-fi thriller that takes the topic of Singularity deadly serious. Johnny Depp stars as Dr. Will Caster, a scientist whose studies on the possibilities of Singularity (or, as he prefers to call it, “transcendence”) make him an expert in his field.
Caster and his loyal wife (Rebecca Hall) deal with his inevitable death from an illness by placing his consciousness into a computer. When his digital self materializes as fully conscious, massively intelligent, and showing traces of who the doctor was in his former life, the process of creating new forms of nano-technology and bettering life on Earth commences.
We know from the opening scenes that all of this goes badly, as a prologue gives us too-revealing glimpses of the ending, spoiling some of the surprises in store. The seemingly reliable casting of Depp doesn’t help: he’s a 200 proof movie star who’s always watchable but he’s also hard to buy as a scientist. Hall gave the film’s best performance, even as her character and her motivations become difficult to believe.
The story flashes forward two years and we see she’s adapted to an odd way of life (which I won’t spoil); she has a moment, over dinner with a digital Depp, where she announces she can’t live this way anymore. The moment is unintentionally absurd: now she’s upset? What were the past two years like?!
The heady, wildly ambitious but increasingly ridiculous screenplay offers lots of surprises I won’t hint at, mostly because you wouldn’t believe how goofy this gets without seeing it for yourself. Director Wally Pfister is aiming for something prophetic and thoughtful, like Her, but adds go-for-broke narrative pulp. Movies like Brainstorm and The Lawnmower Man come to mind, but those movies were far better.
Pfister is a celebrated camera man and this is truly a cinematographer’s movie. Beautiful shots of slow motion water droplets, sweeping shots of nature and of matter rising upwards to the sky, stick in the mind far more than the third act’s silly plot developments.
Put simply, this attempt at creating a thoughtful, large-scale cautionary tale on the possible outcome of mankind’s over-reliance on technology goes sour. Science fiction doesn’t have to be air tight or totally plausible, but the later two-thirds of the picture are impossible to take seriously.
Morgan Freeman has a supporting role as Caster’s colleague and has the film’s best scene, in which he hand-delivers a cautionary note. Here’s mine to audiences: wait for the Blu-ray.
Score: ** (1-5 Star Score)