'Transcendence' may be the defining motion picture of 1995
Transcendence Warner Bros. Pictures
Director: Wally Pfister
Screenplay: Jack Paglen
Starring: : Johnny Depp, Rebecca Hall, Paul Bettany, Morgan Freeman, Kate Mara, Cillian Murphy, Cole Hauser and Clifton Collins Jr
Rated PG-13 / 1 hour, 59 minutes
(out of four)
From the IGMS Archives: August 25, 1995
Years from now, when a full-scale technological collapse has befallen mankind, leaving in its wake the spiritually annihilated entrails of a once-noble human species driven collectively mad by the unlimited potential of the information superhighway and ravaged by its capacity for scientific overreach, the history books will look back to this very moment, in the year of our lord 1995, as the time during which it was all foretold.
As this summer's movies have repeatedly warned us, the encroaching "Internet" fad has laid bare the fragility of our civilization in the face of technological leaps we cannot begin to understand nor control. You may think the "web" is just a place where you receive your electronic mail submissions, or where your children "log on" to goof around in chat rooms and such, but what this year's movies presuppose is ... what if it's not? What if, rather, the seeds planted by such seemingly innocuous high-tech giants as Prodigy and America Online lead us to a future in which we sacrifice our actual selves for digital facsimiles? A future in which human brains are treated as mere electrical wiring? A future in which computers are merely soulless vessels for our minds? A future in which artificial intelligence (or "A.I." for short) controls us all?
Dear readers, modern cinema has issued a series of stern cautionary tales, all cleverly guised in the form of glossy tech-thrillers, on this very issue. As someone familiar with technology myself - I even have my own portable computer - I say with no exaggeration that this year, 1995, will go down as a prophetic year for our civilization, and a landmark for the medium of film.
Robert Longo dropped the first bombshell on the public consciousness in May with the release of his thriller Johnny Mnemonic, which will likely go down as the defining futuristic action movie of Keanu Reeves' career. Then last month, the smash-hit Sandra Bullock thriller The Net terrified moviegoers with its unforgiving confrontation of our collective identity crisis in the Internet age. And just a few weeks ago, the great Virtuosity exposed, hopefully once and for all, the dangers of virtual reality. And that's not all. Buzz is already building around two fall entries, Strange Days and Hackers, the latter of which promises to blow the lid off the world wide web.
But perhaps none of those films will be remembered quite like this latest one, the A.I.-centric Transcendence, the directorial debut of little-known cinematographer Wally Pfister. A harrowing tale of a mad scientist who dies, only to reincarnate himself as a computer program in order to use advanced "nanotechnology" to control virtually everything - biological, ecological, geological, viral - on Earth, Transcendence may well go down as the most prescient film of 1995, if not the entire decade.
Just look at these movies, my friends. Consider their implications. There is no way - I repeat: no. way. - this collection of works by these filmmaker-philosophers will seem hilariously antiquated just a few years from now. Certainly not this one, which is clearly ahead of its time and would not come across as obscenely stupid if it were made, say, 19 years from now.
In the lead role as scientific researcher Will Caster is Don Juan DeMarco heartthrob Johnny Depp, and if there's anything the studio producing this picture got wrong, it may be the casting. Depp simply does not have the box-office clout to carry a late-summer tentpole, which may prevent the film from receiving the widespread attention it deserves. Warner Bros. would have been much better off going with a more proven box-office commodity like Mel Gibson, Pauly Shore or Robin Williams. (That Robin Williams, he sure would make a wacky mad scientist, don't you agree?)
Considering the social importance of Transcendence, this is not a small point. The summer of '95 has been dominated by fluff, personified by the likes of Joel Schumacher's Batman Forever (a serious-minded filmmaker like Pfister would never be bothered with such frivolity as a Batman film); a film like this demands a larger segment of the audience.
But then again, maybe it's no issue. Twenty years from now, when people are still studying and puzzling over the likes of Virtuosity and The Net, recent, trivial box-office smashes like Pulp Fiction, Braveheart and The Lion King will have been completely forgotten.
But back to the movie in question. Depp actually acquits himself in the role reasonably well, all things considered. Alongside him is newcomer Rebecca Hall as his wife and fellow scientist, as well as some British guy as another fellow scientist, and Morgan Freeman (of Street Smart fame) as another fellow scientist. As Dr. Joseph Tagger, Freeman is the film's moral and philosophical center, but frankly, I don't see much of a future for him as a benevolent authority figure in movies. However, the film may indeed have a find in Cole Hauser, who plays a small but crucial role as a military figure late in the film. If I'm sure of anything, it's that this Hauser fellow has the makings of a future star, so look out.
After giving a terrifying speech about the encroaching power of artificial intelligence, Dr. Caster is shot with a polonium-laced bullet by a member of a heroic anti-technology group, giving him fatal radiation poisoning and leaving him with no choice but to upload his brain into a computer so he can presumably continue his research. But his intentions, pure as his wife seems to believe they are, are deeper, darker and more dangerous than anyone could have imagined. Except that British guy who keeps on warning everyone how deep, dark and dangerous the whole experiment is.
The new A.I. version of Will starts out humbly, limited merely to accessing the files on the computer system to which he is attached. But soon enough he asks - no, demands - to be hooked up ... online!
To the NET.
And so his quest for global power begins, which includes the formation of a small but potent army of human drones connected to, and controlled by, Caster's master computer program. But just wait until you see what clever scheme the good guys come up with to stop Dr. Caster's plans in its tracks! If I didn't know any better, I'd say it's the type of inventive, not-dumb plot solution you might expect to find in, for instance, an upcoming alien-invasion movie.
Transcendence is full of little insights about the future. Pfister foresees a world in which everyone carries around small, flat, mobile telephones (I'm not sure where the number buttons are - maybe you just tell the phone what number you want to dial? Who knows!), and in which law-enforcement agencies use surveillance cameras and computerized tracking devices to assist with their investigations. Look, I don't know about the accuracy of those predictions, but the film's outlook on their ultimate fate is dire, to say the least. In fact, one of the first images we see is one of those so-called mobile telephones lying on the ground, cracked and destroyed, rendered useless by a post-apocalyptic, post-technology America.
Let's face facts: We are less than five years away from the inevitable Y2K catastrophe, and what films like this teach us is that Y2K may only be the beginning. Transcendence is not an allegory; it is not metaphorical; it is not something frivolous or fun. (I repeat: This movie has zero fun.) This is reality. The Internet and its artificial intelligence are here, and they're scary, and they are going to destroy the world as we know it.
Don't just take it from me - take it from the most terrifying, most important movie of 1995.
Well, second-most important, anyway - that Johnny Mnemonic is pretty damn good.