The release of "Transcendence" last Thursday marked the directorial debut for cinematographer Wally Pfister, known for his award-winning work in "Inception" and collaborations with Christopher Nolan, and yet another box-office bust for Johnny Depp.
This latest flop for Depp joins a chorus line of expensive box-office failures such as "Secret Window," "The Lone Ranger," "Dark Shadows," and "The Rum Diary." Though Pfister’s directorial debut clearly implemented his distinct visual styles in the precise world of science, The Hollywood Reporter notes the film, costing over $100 million to produce, earned only $11.5 million in the first weekend’s ticket sales.
While it's true that Pfister has an eye for fantastic visuals and photography, he isn’t quite seasoned in everything else such as choosing a well-written script, enlivening a cast, and holding the audience’s attention.
It truly is a shame that Pfister made his first film with Jack Paglen’s dodgy, poorly written, ineptly plotted script. It's like trying to hit a grand slam with a bat made of string cheese.
Opening the film with an apocalyptic setting from the end of the story is a surefire way to keep the audience guessing throughout the rest of the film. But the explanations for how humanity reached these depths is not satisfying enough.
The storyline flip-flops between supporting and dismantling advances in artificial intelligence about as often as the characters do in the film. While in the end, modern technology does self-destruct, it also still exists as a positive, invisible agent, healing the various atrocities man committed against the earth.
While there are hints of interesting ideas and themes, Paglen irritatingly peppered the story with plot holes and wrote in characters devoid of any depth.
A large part of the film’s let down is the surprisingly empty performances by largely first-class actors. Depp’s portrayal of the dying genius Will Catser, basically consists of him first as a living, stale scientist, he then dies and is reborn as an equally emotionless man in a computer.
Morgan Freeman, playing the role of the AI scientist Joseph Tagger, was there to simply be Morgan Freeman; the man with the vocal abilities to epically narrate a shopping list.
Rebecca Hall, playing the role of Catser’s wife, who we haven’t really seen much of since her Golden Globe nominated role in Vicky Cristina Barcelona, did not emotionally impress as a grieving widow usually does.
Watching Kate Mara’s monotonous character Bree, the anti-AI terrorist organizer, was the same as watching Zoey Barnes, her character on the hit Netflix series “House of Cards.” I half expected her to start biting her nails and pondering the death of Congressman Russo.
What was visibly present beyond the weak storytelling and poor performances included some themes currently trending in recent releases.
There seems to be a sci-fi trend towards the consequences of artificial intelligence built with self-awareness. In many films, this consists of a discovery of a new science creating artificial intelligence that has the ability to think and feel for itself. Most often, this development proves to be detrimental and ultimately the cause for humanity’s downfall.
Films featuring self-aware artificial intelligence robots date back to sci-fi milestones like "2001: A Space Odyssey" in 1968 and "Blade Runner" in 1982.
Today’s box office releases share similar topics of interest.
Recent recipient of an academy award for best original screenplay, Spike Lee’s "Her" voices similar concerns that artificial intelligence will outdate human beings and upgrade to a higher state of being.
Caradog W. James’ "The Machine," out in theaters this Friday, shares a similar story. When two dorky programmers love each other very much, they decide to have a self-aware artificially intelligent baby designed to help humanity. Unfortunately, the software is stolen and the baby is trained as a robotic weapon.
There is even a flash of the AI sci-fi bug in the recent, critically acclaimed "Captain America: The Winter Soldier," when the criminal organization HYDRA discovers how to scientifically make super-humans.
These Frankenstein-esque stories are more often than not tales of warning that express the public’s fears of artificial intelligence taking over society and marking the end of mankind.
It's apparent through movies like "Transcendence" and "Her" that while people do continuously consume the upgraded technology produced on a month to month basis, people are also aware of their failing autonomy over technology.