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THE absence of a science minister, anticipated cutbacks to the CSIRO, bitter disagreements over the science of climate change — what’s happening here? Why are scientists, who were once thought of as the saviours of mankind, now apparently on the nose?
Is popular culture to blame? Maybe. From cinema’s earliest days, mad scientists have featured prominently among the most evil villains: Frankenstein was only the start of it. Perhaps it all stems from that age-old conflict between science and religion that makes the scientist, often accused of wanting to assume the powers of God, such a controversial figure.
Transcendence is an ambitious new film that tackles some of these themes and poses some of these questions and, predictably, it has been greeted in the US — where it opened a few days ago — with praise and scorn. It’s the first feature directed by Wally Pfister who has earned a formidable reputation as the cinematographer of Christopher Nolan’s films, including the acclaimed Inception. For his directorial debut, Pfister has tackled a large-scale sci-fi thriller that, unlike all too many sci-fi movies produced these days, is first and foremost a film of ideas. It’s also a film that poses some pretty basic questions, such as: is advanced technology something we should fear? It all depends, I suppose, on what role we see for technology in the near future; whether it’s something that works for us or whether, gradually and insidiously, we will start working for it.
The film opens with a prologue depicting an apparently devastated world, a world in which everyday technology, such as mobile phones and laptops, have apparently become useless. A man (Paul Bettany) explains that there has been “an unstoppable collision between mankind and technology”, then takes us back five years to explain how and why.
The man in the opening scene proves to be Max, a scientist who works alongside Will Caster (Johnny Depp) and his wife, Evelyn (Rebecca Hall), on an experiment involving a giant machine they call PINK (Physically Independent Neural Network). PINK is basically a giant computer that thinks and talks with the voice of a young woman (comparisons with 2001’ s HAL can’t be avoided); if Caster’s experiments succeed, PINK’s knowledge will be augmented with emotions and self-awareness. Caster is a well-respected scientist, as the packed attendance at his seminal Evolve the Future seminar attests — but technology on this level has enemies and, in a series of co-ordinated attacks on several laboratories, a militant group calling itself RIFT (Revolutionary Independence from Technology), led by a fierce young woman called Bree (Kate Mara), causes a great deal of damage. Worse, Caster is shot — non-fatally it’s believed until it’s discovered that the bullet was laced with radiation. This means he has only a few days left to live, and he decides to spend that time “transcending” himself. This involves a far more elaborate version of the sort of backup we might do on our computers, or the saving of a music file to a hard drive. It means that, before his death, Caster becomes integrated into PINN. Frankenstein created a human being out
(M) Limited release
(M) of bits and pieces of dead bodies, but Caster creates the most super computer the world has known out of himself and his knowledge.
These events occupy roughly the first half of the film. In the second half Evelyn, working under Caster/PINN’s instructions, establishes a vast centre of knowledge and power in the rundown desert township of Brightwood, while Max becomes increasingly concerned as to where these experiments will lead and whether Caster’s now god-like power will become a force for good or evil. Even more concerned are fellow scientist Tagger (Morgan Freeman providing, as he so often does, the voice of reason) and FBI agent Buchanan (Cillian Murphy).
The screenplay by Jack Paglen is positively bursting with ideas, to the point that it’s not always easy to keep up with exactly what’s happening. Where the film perhaps could have been stronger — could have achieved classic status — is in the relationship between Caster and Evelyn. There are two fine actors here (Hall is particularly good) but the screenplay doesn’t really give them enough material to work with.
Nevertheless, Transcendence is superior to most other sci-fi films these days; it’s briskly paced, consummately made (fine work from cinematographer Jess Hall) and never boring. Puzzling and occasionally challenging it may be, but it’s made with style and imagination. IN the wake of highly regarded American films such as All is Lost and Gravity, both of which explored the lonely and frightening world of an individual stranded in a hostile environment, comes the Australian Canopy, which tackles a similar theme but on a far more modest budget.
This is the first feature of Aaron Wilson, who wrote and directed it, and there’s no doubt it’s a fine achievement, one apparently produced without major support from the government funding bodies.
Instead, finance was sought from Singapore, resulting in what is, effectively, a co-production between Australia and that nation-state, and Singapore provided the dense jungle in which the entire film unfolds.
Khan Chittenden plays Jim, an RAAF pilot shot down soon after the Japanese victory in Singapore in 1942. We are told little about Jim except that he’s from a farming background. We can imagine that he was one of those brave young Australians who volunteered to fight at the outbreak of World War II, that he underwent training as a pilot, and that this was one of his first missions. Very brief images of a woman waiting in an Australian rural setting suggest he has a wife or a girlfriend back home.
The film was presumably produced on too small a budget to allow for much more than this, and the fleeting scenes of aircraft appear to be computer-generated. But once Jim is on the ground in jungle, the film becomes an intense story of survival. After a while, Jim encounters Seng (Mo Tzu-yi), a Chinese soldier also trying to reach safety and to avoid the Japanese patrols that monitor the area. Though they can’t speak one another’s language, and Seng is wounded, the men form a strong team.
Canopy is a minimalist film that reminded me a little of the work of French director Robert Bresson, though Wilson is not yet at that level. Impressive as it is in many ways, Canopy doesn’t fully convey the horror and the isolation these men must have experienced. It’s a conceptually bold film but not a fully achieved one.