Transcendence: Man, machine and moral science

April 19, 2014 06:52 pm | Updated May 21, 2016 12:20 pm IST

Morgan Freeman, from left, Cillian Murphy, and Rebecca Hall in a scene from "Transcendence."

Morgan Freeman, from left, Cillian Murphy, and Rebecca Hall in a scene from "Transcendence."

Watching Transcendence is a reminder that there are a finite number of stories swirling around in our subconscious. The great moral debate of what makes a man or how far you would go in the interests of science have been the basis of stories forever. There was Frankenstein’s monster, there was also that story Betaal tells King Vikram where a man’s head is interchanged with that of his friend. The riddle he asks is whether the husband is the head or the body?

Not to say Wally Pfister’s Transcendence is boring or derivative. It has an excellent visual style. Pfister, a long-time collaborator of Christopher Nolan, has been cinematographer for Nolan from Memento right up to The Dark Knight Rises .

For his directorial debut, Pfister tells the story of Will Caster, an A.I. or artificial intelligence researcher who believes “a sentient machine will quickly overcome the limits of biology”. A radical group fears the machines will become self-aware and attack A.I. labs across America — of course they forget the A.I. sweatshops in India. So they blow up the labs and kill the scientists. Caster is shot with a radioactive bullet and has a couple of weeks to live. He and his wife and fellow researcher, Evelyn, decide to download his brain to create a sentient machine.

Caster’s friend and colleague, Max Waters, has reservations about the scheme and once Caster dies, wants Evelyn to “shut it down”. Evelyn refuses because she insists ‘it’ is Caster. Evelyn and Caster go off into the great unknown and build a brave new world where there is no disease or death and everything is connected. There is a price to pay, of course, when Max joins up with the radical chic and with help from the FBI saves the world from the machines.

The movie is fun for all the counter culture people and the conspiracy theorists. Scientists and A.I. researchers would probably laugh hollowly at what is being shown, but hey, it’s the movies and some amount of kooky science should be allowed. Some of the themes the movie addresses are plain creepy — invasion of privacy and can we really transcend our bodies being some of them. There is the seduction of cheating death and decay, but technology we all know is a good slave but not a very good master. See what happened to Skynet.

Of the cast, it is nice to see Johnny Depp play a regular guy for a bit before he goes off and becomes a programme. Paul Bettany as Max is the BFF we would all like to have — even when he is not naked. Rebecca Hall as Evelyn with her plump lips reminds one of Scarlett Johansson and that other romance with an OS, Her . Morgan Freeman lends the mandatory gravitas as Joseph Tagger, a mentor and friend of the Casters.

Transcendence is an engaging, handsome movie asking desperately deep and meaningful questions that take our mind off the ridiculous price of popcorn and parking.

Genre: Sci-fi

Cast: Johnny Depp, Morgan Freeman, Rebecca Hall, Kate Mara, Cillian Murphy

Director: Wally Pfister

Storyline: A scientist pushes the boundaries of possibility

Bottomline: Hi-tech take on age-old debates

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