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The Weekend Australian - Review - - Film Reviews - David Strat­ton

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

Tran­scen­dence

Na­tional re­lease

(M) Limited re­lease

Canopy

(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.

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