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Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Bonus Materials: man, machine and Transcendence

Posted by on Wed, Jul 23, 2014 at 10:27 AM

click to enlarge Johnny Depp in Transcendence - COURTESY OF WARNER BROS. PICTURES
  • courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures
  • Johnny Depp in Transcendence
Hollywood has yet to make an adaptation of William Gibson's 1984 cyberpunk novel Neuromancer. And it's not for lack of trying—probably a dozen projects have started and stalled in the last 30 years. 

But if you've read the book and followed science fiction movies in the years since, it's astounding how many of Gibson's ideas have percolated into the pop culture consciousness. What's more, dozens of tossed-off details from his early books have proven prescient in recent years—stealth wear, corporate personhood and our current surveillance state concerns. It's freaky. Get a couple of coffees in me and I can go on about this for hours.

Science fiction thriller Transcendencenew this week to DVD, Blu-ray and download—is the latest property to revisit Gibson's 30-year-old ideas. Johnny Depp plays Dr. Will Caster, a specialist in Artificial Intelligence, who uploads his consciousness to a networked supercomputer.

These days, the concept of merging man and machine consciousness is sometimes called the Singularity, a term popularized by author and futurist Ray Kurzweil. It involves a lot of current and emerging science about quantum computing, biotechnology and nanotech breakthroughs.

When Gibson dug into these ideas in the late 1980s, he was interested in the human, existential aspects of the scenario. The immortal "personality constructs" in his books want nothing more than to be unplugged; free to die the old-fashion way.

Transcendence goes a different direction. There's some fascinating material in the beginning and middle sections about the feasibility of "mind uploading" and the exponential growth of man-machine super-intelligence. Depp, along with fellow researchers played by Paul Bettany, Morgan Freeman and Rebecca Hall, deliver the pseudo-scientific dialogue with reasonable aplomb. Director and veteran cinematographer Wally Pfister provides the visuals, including a digitized virtual Depp whose appearance recalls—on purpose, I assume—1980s cult sensation Max Headroom.

The third act devolves into low-rent ridiculousness involving Army jeeps and guns, but Transcendence is worth checking out for a couple of reasons. One is British actress Hall, who elevates every movie she's in. She seems to be the only participant interested in the story's human dimensions. Also, the film carries on the rich science-fiction tradition of taking our cultural anxieties and bouncing them back at us in narrative form. Our machines are getting awfully smart, and it's clearly freaking us out.

Transcendence is fun on a popcorn-movie level, with its detours into Luddite terrorism and networked pod people. It's slick, glossy and more than a little ditzy. If you're looking for something more nutritious, Spike Jonze's superior A.I. drama Heralso available on disc and digitally—tackles similar themes with more insight.

Extras: The DVD/Blu-ray retail edition includes four featurettes on the the science behind the movie, which play like infomercials crossed with a big-budget Discovery Channel special.

Also New This Week:
  • Michael Peña headlines the biopic Cesar Chavez, profiling the famous labor leader and civil rights activist, directed by Diego Luna. 
  • Ron Howard directs the combination concert film and music documentary Made in America, with performances from Jay-Z, Pearl Jam, Dirty Projectors, Odd Future, Run-DMC, Skrillex and Kanye West. 
  • The NBC miniseries Shogun, with Richard Chamberlain, has been reissued on Blu-ray with new bonus materials. 

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