Pandora’s Excellent Box: AI in Film

Film Review of (I)Transcendence and (II) Her

After enjoying a whimsical recollection of a recent Glitch Mob gig, my mind’s been all critic-like. So I thought I’d turn it to two superficially similar films which are both about AI and love, with my usualy witty blend of philsophy, feminism and literary snobbery. Spoilers follow, but I’ll try to signpost the worst in situ so you can skip paragraphs if you really care.

[Suggested Listening]

Let’s start with Transcendence (trailer). It stars Jonny Depp and Rebecca Hall as Will and Evelyn Caster, who along with their sceptical friend Paul Bettany (‘Max’) manage to upload Depp’s consciousness onto a computer, ‘transcending’ the limits of biological humanity and death. It’s 19% on Rotten Tomatoes (i.e. only 19% of reviewers said it was worth seeing) and 42% on MetaCritic (an average of critic’s scores.) It’s directed by Wally Pfister, best known as Christopher Nolan’s sidekick.

Given those poor reviews, Transcendence struck me as much better than expected. Which will make this review odd since it’s all whining.

The first two minutes give away the whole plot, deliberately. This was a very bizarre decision, it added nothing to the film other than to deflate 90% of the tension, and a heavily foreshadowed easter-egg in the epilogue does nothing to make up for this. Maybe Pfister was hoping for an American Beauty-esque circularity? Did not work.

I can see why people didn’t like this film. It starts fairly solidly, but after the one hour mark it goes beyond pure focus on AI and personhood to look at whacky futuristic technology, so much so that it changes the feel and direction, maybe even the genre, of movie. I personally kinda dug it, because you would expect a conscious supercomputer to invent things, sure. But throwing them in so heavily obscured the film’s original premise, the premise that was the main element of the trailers. People did not pay to see a [SPOILER] nanotechnology, environment and mecha-zombie film. Worse, introducing so much more sci-fi gadgetry entails more questions, and more holes.

The most potentially invigorating sequence comes before all that, though, early on when Depp’s Will Caster is dying from [SPOILER] radiation poisoning and lets his wife and buddy ‘upload’ his personality. In the film, Depp then dies, the survivors do some sad acting, then they turn the computer on and start getting to grips with AI-Caster.

What a missed opportunity. For a few minutes or hours in the film’s world, AI-Caster is viable but meat-Caster is not biologically dead. Are there two Casters? Does AI-Caster not count as 100% meat-Caster as he/it doesn’t have meat-Caster’s very last dying memories? These are the kinds of issues that got me into philosophy in A level, that gets punters through the door, but it’s not looked at, not even flitted over. What is a soul? What defines a person’s identity? Can a person be duplicated? Why’s the rum gone?…While Hall’s Evelyn spends much of the film blandly worrying whether AI-Caster is really meat-Caster, she never delves beyond the most beige superficialities of identity. The film misses the opportunities seized in S2E1 of Charlie Brooker’s Black Mirror, which does a cracking, compelling job in just 55 minutes.

The script? It was…pretty good in terms of dialogue. A few howlers. Yes, the scientists can be a bit…’stuffy scientist’. But if they’d been any different, critics would’ve said it was unrealistic for boffins to be so charismatic. Bettany plays Max well with restricted screentime, Hall and Depp both exhibit average acting (Depp not wholly excused by being a computer 2/3 of the film). But the wider scriptural concerns show the problem: the characters aren’t established much beyond ‘ambitious scientist’, ‘devoted wife scientist’ and ‘cautious scientist’. We have little investment, but (I thought) this was acceptable in the film’s first half since there was enough going on that I was absorbed by the questions and possibilities of AI, not the people. Later on, it’s the plot very consciously makes pivotal events centre around character’s emotions and thoughts, but those characters remain undeveloped. That feels especially weak when you consider the large, impressive ensemble cast led by Cillian Murphy (Inception), Morgan Freeman (Bruce Almighty) and Kate Mara (House of Cards), none of whom have strong motives, traits or…just…presence.

The film was criticised for not being clear who was Good and Right and who was Wrong and Evil. There are some anti-technology terrorists and the movie seems to sway between rooting for them and sympathising – AI-Caster does seem bent on world domination, after all. Well duh, of course there should be moral greyness, the morality of AI is a massive question. A bit of ambiguity is strong scripting, in a challenging film – we don’t know who to root for. In George RR Martin or House of Cards, it’s usually appreciated as such. If only characters on all sides of the debate were fleshed out, this would be a real plus.

Like deciding on heroes, Pfiser seems to struggle with tone. We get nods at Messianic themes, we get a critique of religious NIMBYism (for stem cells, GM foods etc), distrust of the security and surveillance services, a look at inept government, and loads of environmentalism. That’s all fine, if slightly ham-handed. But then there are also a bunch of gunfights and explosions, and [SPOILER] nanotechnology that dismembers people in the manner of a half-hearted horror. The violence added nothing.

Compounding this, the acing wasssss a bit schmeh. There were slow points, some lingering nature shots, a surprising amount of solar panel and processor pornography (no really). The (gratuitous) action shots were so fast it felt like we jumped location in a chase or characters were suddenly cornered when they’d been in the open before. That was disorienting but easily forgotten and forgiven, if only the rest stood up. Uh oh.

My biggest problem by far, though, was with Depp’s AI.

AI-Caster is shown knowing everything about everything very early on in his quantum computerdom, before he even learns his full capabilities. He locates the terrorists who shot his biological self and shares all their secrets with the FBI (who nail most terrorists), but inexplicably neither AI-Caster nor the FBI [SPOILER] attack the terrorists’ leadership, despite them having captured Max. Later on, AI-Caster is even more of a fucking moron. He lets government and terrorist forces move to attack him again and again, lets them [SPOILER] turn Max and Evelyn against him, but doesn’t seem to notice. With access to the internet he’s implicitly near-omniscient (LIKE GOD!) but this is horribly unexplored. What about satellites, what about America’s nuclear arsenal? How could he even beginto let the attack happen?

AI-Caster never really shows emotion. In fact, he never really shows ‘humanhood’ other than having Depp’s voice and one or two cutesy memories. He’s not much better than R2D2 with a facelift and a turbo boost – he’s a powerful supercomputer, sure, but? Yes, he has an unsettling paternal relationship with Evelyn, but there are no raised voices, no real concern or anger or fear, no sense of being trapped in a fucking computer, no trying to contact his other scientist friends and say ‘Look! Cool, we did it!’

If the film’s message is that combining an individual with a computer’s capacity immediately unmakes most of your character (as Bettany’s Max postulates), then fine, but [SPOILER] that’s the opposite of how the film concludes. Sooo? AI-Caster was largely bio-Caster, but decided to be a cold-shouldering, passively uncaring dick for most of the movie? And failed to consider his own destruction – even though did he easily predicted [SPOILER] that Max would try to infect him with a virus him really early in the film?


All of the AI-Caster’s problems and threats could’ve been solved if he had just communicated with the world, agreed to abide by some rules, and avoided automatically zombifying the people he cured with nanomedicine. “Fear of the unknown” is repeatedly used as the reason humans are hostile to new technology, but that’s less convincing if The Beneficent Unknown makes no attempt to explain its very sensible plan and motives, which were implicitly capable of solving all environmental, poverty, medical and famine-based problems. AI-Caster would still have provoked opposition, but this was another open goal for cracking scenes of dialogue between an AI and world leaders, and the masses’ reactions. Worst, the film slips in that Americans at least do know about Caster because he was famous before he died, and he hosts Youtube recruitment videos of his magical healing power afterwards. But only 30 sick people in the whole world take interest. The whole point of AI-Caster being a supercomputer-with-soul, not just a supercomputer, is that he should be able to emote and empathise, but he never considers PR, global justification, collaborating with others or justifying his world takeover.

The way the film visually portrayed AI-Caster was lamentable. He’s mostly Depp’s blank face on a screen, but covered with scrolling code. Why would any quantum computer show random lines of code all the time? He’s controlling thousands of systems, complex experiments and even different human minds all at once, the amount of code must be (necessarily, ‘transcendentally’ ) mind-boggling, so there’s no way the lines of code are there for anything other than to remind the viewer of the movie’s central premise – which they can hardly have forgotten. We don’t need Depp’s metallic voice, we don’t need to see him on every screen. In fact, he stalks Evelyn so comprehensively that he seems to have less emotional intelligence even than meat-Caster’s bumbling scientist. For an analyst that can read Evelyn’s heart-rate and hormone levels, HAL9000 really doesn’t know when to give a human some space.

AI-Caster’s obvious artificiality, his sledgehammer soullessness, turns Hall’s widow Evelyn into an ancient stereotyped Weak Woman. Max doesn’t want to turn the computer on in the first place but grieving, distracted hysterical emotional woman does it against sensible stable man’s advice. She’s Pandora, and the film spends most of its time telling us she’s a blind idiot who might have doomed the world. [SPOILER] Yes, it turns out AI-Caster had very good intentions, but Evelyn doesn’t look vindicated: she looks defeated and emotionally exhausted, as well as [SPOILERS] shot and cheated of her husband’s real reanimation.

On the plus side, we didn’t see Hall’s boobs. Or her bum. Or really any sex, or lingering shots of her body. So we can surmise that Transcendence is better for gender than Transformers, at least. The terrorist leader is also a woman, and does the opposite of Evelyn in most cases, so does this cancel out Evelyn’s weakness? No, not really. As mentioned above, she’s totally undeveloped, and her cult’s philosophy and intellectual backing come across as contradictory, naïve, and ultimately world-ruining. Don’t even whisper the word Bechdale. Just repeat: Women shouldn’t concern their pretty heads with robots and science.

People are very good at getting annoyed when a film is too clever (Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy), and Transcendence tries to avoid this by keeping the deep thoughts to a minimum and throwing in a pinch of violence. This tactic should not be tried again.

Lukewarm recommendation – it’s not an excellent film, but it’s thought provoking and not as terrible as others say. If in doubt, read the wiki and watch Moon instead.

Comparative review of Her to follow. Chin up! It’s much better…


4 thoughts on “Pandora’s Excellent Box: AI in Film

  1. Pingback: Love the Machine – Review of Spike Jonze’s ‘Her’ | Haywire Thought

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