Ghost in the ma­chine

Pon­der­ous sci-fi flick re­lies on fa­mil­iar techno­phobe tropes about the cost of a wired world

Winnipeg Free Press - Section G - - FRONT PAGE - By Roger Moore

FOR years, the ru­mour about Johnny Depp was that he wouldn’t take a role that re­quired him to get a hair­cut. Cho­co­lat, Pi­rates of the Caribbean, Once Upon a Time in Mex­ico, Sleepy Hol­low — mop­topped co­in­ci­dences, or a ca­reer van­ity? With Tran­scen­dence, he’s got a part that re­quires a shaved head in some scenes. And act­ing. He needs to sug­gest a bril­liant sci­en­tist, the first to crack “the sin­gu­lar­ity,” a very smart man trans­fer­ring his mind to a ma­chine and thus achiev­ing “Tran­scen­dence” — im­mor­tal­ity. He cuts it off, but he doesn’t pull it off. This thought­ful but windy and winded sci-fi thriller short­changes the sci­ence — un­der­stand­ably — and the thrills. The di­rect­ing de­but of Dark Knight cin­e­matog­ra­pher Wally Pfis­ter is a mopey af­fair with in­dif­fer­ent per­for­mances, heartless ro­mance and dull ac­tion. It tran­scends noth­ing. Depp is Dr. Will Caster, a math­e­ma­ti­cian, com­puter ge­nius and ar­ti­fi­cial-in­tel­li­gence the­o­rist who, with the help of his bril­liant wife (Re­becca Hall), is close to a com­puter that might “over­come the lim­its of bi­ol­ogy.” It will think. That trou­bles his equally bril­liant neuro-sci­en­tist/ethi­cist pal, Max (Paul Bet­tany), who doesn’t give voice to fears of a ma­chine that wants to jump from tic-tac-toe to “Global Ther­monu­clear War,” SkyNET and HAL not open­ing the pod bay door. But you know he’s think­ing it. And since this tale is told by Max in flash­back, from a des­o­late, off-the-elec­tri­cal-grid San Fran­cisco five years in the fu­ture, we fig­ure he knows what he’s talk­ing about. Ter­ror­ists have de­cided that this project is a threat and try to blow it up and kill Dr. Caster. They al­most suc­ceed, sen­tenc­ing the not-so-mad sci­en­tist to a lin­ger­ing death. That gives his friends the chance to try and skip a few steps in their re­search. They’ll load the elec­tri­cal and chemical con­tents of his bril­liant mind — his thoughts, mem­o­ries, ethics — into a vast ma­chine and save his life. In a man­ner of speak­ing. And since we’ve seen a San Fran­cisco where key­boards are only use­ful as door stops and cell­phones are just so much worth­less lit­ter, we know this is where the trou­ble starts. Kate Mara sug­gests noth­ing fa­nat­i­cal, clever or fear­some as the leader of the RIFT rev­o­lu­tion­ar­ies who tried to kill Caster and who then kid­nap Max. Depp and Hall are sup­posed to have this Ghost- level love, a ro­mance of long­ing that drives her ac­tions to save him, in spite of Will’s warn­ings to her. They don’t set off sparks. Mor­gan Free­man shows up as a grand­fa­therly skep­tic sci­en­tist. Cole Hauser ap­pears as a mil­i­tary man brought in to deal with the grow­ing prob­lem that hap­pens when Will’s in­sa­tiable brain gets on the In­ter­net, ma­nip­u­lates Wall Street and starts to plan a tech­no­log­i­cal revo­lu­tion. The script sug­gests the mir­a­cles that bio-tech has in store for us — re­pair­ing in­juries and in­fir­mi­ties with nan­otech­nol­ogy, 3D laser print­ers and the like. The lame will walk and the blind will see. But there will be a cost, a cost com­mon to sci-fi sto­ries about “the sin­gu­lar­ity” and the un­lim­ited power it prom­ises. Depp is a bland pres­ence as a dis­em­bod­ied face on a com­puter screen. Hall seems to wish she had a flesh-and-blood ac­tor to emote to and Bet­tany spends far too much time with Mara, who has never been worse in a movie. As Max says, in his nar­ra­tion and else­where, this sort of dilemma seems “in­evitable” given the state of our wiredin world. But we learned that from The Ter­mi­na­tor. The trick is to tran­scend sci-fi tropes, get past “People fear what they don’t un­der­stand” and get into the ex­pe­ri­ence of Will’s ex­is­tence across the dig­i­tal di­vide. Tran­scen­dence doesn’t.


Above, Johnny Depp. Top, from left, Mor­gan Free­man, Cil­lian Mur­phy, Depp (on screens) and Re­becca Hall.

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