Tuesday, September 09, 2014

Johnny Kitties: Celebrating Johnny Depp Film #46–Transcendence (2014)

[What is Johnny Kitties? See Johnny Kitties: Celebrating Johnny Depp for all the details.]

What fascinated me more than anything is the correlation between technology and power–the idea that a guy who is able to download his sentient being into a machine can become god, or a version of god. Religion is a fascinating black hole to me. 
Johnny Depp on researching his role for Transcendence

When I read the first few blurbs trying to quickly sum up the plot of Transcendence, I rarely made it much farther than the first sentence. Passing by terms like "artificial intelligence," "super computer," and "uploaded consciousness." I gave up and decided to wait for it. 

In this movie, Johnny Depp plays Will Caster, a computer scientist studying the point at which artificial intelligence and human intelligence will achieve singularity or, as he calls it, transcendence. About 15 minutes into it, he is shot by an anti-technology activist using poisoned bullets. When Will finds out that he has about a month left to live, his wife Evelyn (Rebecca Hall) convinces him to try to upload his mind into the quantum computer he'd invented. About 10 minutes after he settles into the computer, his ghostly voice asks for more power, and his soul ends up online. 

He instructs Evelyn to buy land in the middle of nowhere, and she contracts the development of an underground facility there so that Will can continue his work. With his heightened capabilities, he is able to heal the sick and disabled, which at first seems like  amazing good fortune. Soon, however, it is discovered that everyone Will heals becomes a part of him, inheriting his strengths, and the townspeople become a kind of superhuman army. Morgan Freeman describes Transcendence pretty well: "The whole movie is about the development of artificial intelligence and a situation that gets out of hand." 

It's a leap of faith.
As far-fetched as this movie sounds, everyone involved who researched it thinks that we are well on our way. Some scientists believe we could reach this kind of immortality in the next 30 years. "The combination of technology and biology–I think it's inevitable," producer Aaron Ryder says. "We did a fair bit of research and talked to a lot of different people in this field. What was astounding to us was how advanced technology was and how close we were at things that I always thought were just science fiction as being reality."

Transcendence got mixed reviews, some of which were as complicated as the movie sounds. Overall, I think this movie has too many big, stretchy ideas for a 2-hour story. But I didn't really mind that. Here are my own issues with this movie:
  • As I warned earlier, Johnny starts dying about 15 minutes into the movie, which is depressing enough. Then, he's basically on a TV screen for rest of it. I suppose I'm used to Johnny Movies in which he has more to do. 
  • When I first heard about this project, I was most excited by the prospect of Johnny working with Morgan Freeman. It turns out that they only have a few short scenes together, and one of them is when Johnny is already uploaded. Does that one really count?
  • There are lots of computers, coding, and typing in this movie, and no matter what you do with it, that's just not interesting–unless you're an artificial intelligence scientist, I suppose. 

But just go with it.
There are things I like about this movie too. Yes, the premise is outlandish, and the creepy half-human/half-machine population Will creates is over the top. Yet, whenever I watch Transcendence, I get into it. Its big, stretchy ideas are fantastic and make me think for a long time afterward, which was apparently one of the goals. "This film will force people to ask questions," Johnny says. "How far should any of it go? That kind of intelligence in the wrong hands could be quite devastating." Adding to that warning, Wally Pfister notes, "It's my hope that people will think carefully whether technology can be used for the betterment of mankind or to its detriment." 

Wally Pfister was Christopher Nolan's cinematographer for many years, so the special effects in this movie are impressive. I love the visuals and the starkness and clean lines of the sets in the laboratory. 

While I'm disappointed that Johnny and Morgan Freeman didn't have much to do together in this movie, Transcendence also offers a great ensemble cast. I particularly like Paul Bettany as Max, Will and Evelyn's old friend, who serves as the voice of reason and gets most of the action in this story. Paul Bettany worked with Johnny previously in The Tourist and has already finished working with him on another upcoming film. Whenever interviewed about these projects, he's often asked how it feels to be in a Johnny Depp movie and responds jokingly that the question should really be asking how Johnny feels about being in a Paul Bettany movie. To me, Transcendence really is more of a Paul Bettany movie (and that's not a bad thing). 

What's really going on here?
For this Johnny Kitties tribute, I wanted a scene that included Johnny with Morgan Freeman, which meant I had few choices. I decided against depicting Johnny in dying mode and instead opted for a healthier-looking computer-generated version. Here, Evelyn (Lily) leads Will's colleague Joseph (Morgan Freeman/B.J.) and FBI agent Buchanan (Cillian Murphy/Tyrone) into Brightwood Data Center's underground laboratory, where Will makes a surprise appearance.

46. Transcendence (2014) [September 9, 2014]

Don't forget to see For No Good Reason too!
Shortly after the release of Transcendence, Johnny showed up at my local theater in a 2012  documentary called For No Good Reason, which explores the life and work of artist Ralph Steadman. Ralph Steadman is most famous for his collaborations with Hunter Thompson, for whom he provided illustrations to pair with the writer's Rolling Stone articles, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, and other publications. In this fascinating documentary, Johnny pays his quiet friend a visit  and serves as interviewer from a fan's perspective. 

I loved this documentary for shining light on Ralph Steadman's amazing talent and artistry, which I always felt was considered secondary to the work of his more outspoken, eccentric friend. In the documentary, someone commented that while Hunter was considered the crazy one, Ralph was actually more fearless in his artwork. Check it out, and you will see what he means. One of my favorite parts of this documentary is witnessing the artist create an illustration from start to finish. He just doesn't see things like the rest of us. As Johnny puts it, "Wow." 

What's next?
Johnny Kitties is going on hiatus again until more of Johnny's movies are released on DVD sometime next year. The movies that are next in line, Tusk and Into The Woods, have to hit theaters first. 

Tusk, a horror flick written and directed by Kevin Smith, is due out September 19! While Johnny's role has been kept pretty well under wraps, here's the trailer to get you excited about the creepy weirdness of this story:

(© Demarest Films–YouTube video: http://youtu.be/60EUG-CDC_k) 

For those who are interested, Johnny's daughter, Lily-Rose, appears in this film alongside her friend Harley, Kevin Smith's daughter. You can see them in this trailer as the store clerks. (Lily Rose is the one who doesn't speak.) It was announced recently that these characters will have much bigger roles in another upcoming Kevin Smith movie with Johnny, a comedy called Yoga Hosers! So, if Tusk doesn't freak you out too much, we have another Kevin Smith treat in store for next year!   

But I digress. Into the Woods, a Stephen Sondheim musical directed by Rob Marshall, will be released on Christmas Day! In this fairy tale, Johnny plays The Wolf. I think it's safe to say that all Johnny fans are pacing the floors for this one, and the studio apparently knows it. Here's the teaser trailer that barely gives us a glimpse of what's to come:    

 © Walt Disney Pictures–YouTube video: http://youtu.be/sNVGDZHRJXM)

It's pretty much all I want for Christmas. 

Photo credits: All Transcendence images © Alcon Entertainment. 

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