Transcendence (or perhaps more aptly titled Trance-enduscence), the new sci-fi thriller written by Jack Paglen and directed by Wally Pfister (a first feature for both, though Pfister was the cinematographer on many Christopher Nolan films), is about a scientist, Will Caster, who tries to turn the world into a dystopian Eden when his brain is uploaded into a computer.
The basic structure is as familiar as any standard piece of Victorian literature, the period when Mary Shelly wrote Frankenstein, a horror story about an egotistical scientist who tries to play God by creating a man out of a bunch of miscellaneous parts from dead bodies. Read the rest of this entry »
Ah, AI’s that become sentient. If there is one very important lesson to learn from movies, it’s that this is never a very good idea. The argument:
In Electric Dreams, that 1984 movie that gave us a fun disco tune (“it’s got a good rhythm, I can dance to it, I give it an 8”) and a computer, Edgar, that achieves full sentience after having champagne spilt on it, Edgar falls in love with his owner’s girlfriend (a pre-Oscar nominated Virginia Madsen) and tries to kill his rival (with Harold and Maude’s Bud Cort providing Edgar’s voice).
In Colossus: The Forbin Project, a super computer links up with a Russian one in an early form of détente and takes over the world, threatening to launch some nuclear missiles if everyone doesn’t do what he says (voice artist Paul Frees is the voice this time ‘round).
And who can forget Demon Seed, in which a computer that controls every aspect of a state of the art futuristic house imprisons Julie Christie (in a “was she really that desperate for work that she needed to do this film” role) and forces her to have sex with him so he can reproduce (no, I am not kidding, and the voice work this time is the soothing toned Man From U.N.C.L.E. Robert Vaughn, and though it’s more than a bit campy, it’s actually not as bad as I make it sound and is better than it has any right to be).
And I won’t even mention 2001: A Space Odyssey’s HAL.
In the new sci-fi, rom com Her from writer/director Spike Jonze, the AI here, Samantha, doesn’t do anything like that. No, she does much worse. She non-surgically removes the heart of our hero, Theodore, from his chest cavity; throws it on the ground, splat; and stomps on it until there’s nothing left.
The future world painted by Jonze in this movie is not a particularly optimistic one. Perhaps the biggest dystopian aspect of it is that men are back to wearing high wasted, Humphrey Bogart style pants (for some reason, the Donna Karen’s of the future didn’t get the memo that pants that cover the belly button look best when worn with suit jackets of some sort); long sleeve shirts that have pockets that are screaming out for those plastic protectors our grandfather’s use to wear; ugly sweaters than could win every Christmas contest; and ironic mustaches worn unironically.
But just as bad are the women. I mean, they are a pretty weird and awful group in Jonze’s view of things to come. There’s Theodore’s soon to be ex-wife who has left him for some vague reason she claims is Theodore’s fault; a phone sex hook up with someone who has a really sick fetish you will not believe; an emotionally bonkers blind date who freaks out for no logical reason at all; and Samantha who, well, you know. Even Amy, Theodore’s best friend, is a little odd, making a documentary about her mother that we’re suppose to laugh at.
I found it all a little dispiriting myself.
But in the end, how you feel about Her will probably depend on how you feel about the growing relationship of Samantha and Theodore. It never worked for me and there are several reasons for this. Though I had no issue with Samantha’s exponential growth in knowledge and emotion, I felt that Theodore’s growing relationship with Samantha was too equally exponential. He seemed to accept everything far too easily and go along with it all far too quickly to be believable.
What might have helped was if I had a better context for Theodore and his loneliness and life of quiet desperation (such as why his wife was divorcing him), as well as a better context for these OS’s and why he would purchase such a contraption. Theodore just sees an ad for one and buys it. No research, no investigation, no asking of friends. It seemed so impulsive for someone who I would never describe as being remotely impulsive.
In fact, one of the issues I had with the movie is that Theodore is the central character, but it seems to be Samantha’s story. She’s the one who learns something, who grows, who goes on a journey—but her journey is all off screen and never really dramatized. Instead, we follow Theodore who only seems to learn that women, whether of the real or artificial intelligence kind, will just stab you in the back and leave you bleeding to death. But is that really the point Jonze is trying to make here?
And because I never bought this central relationship, my mind wandered and I began questioning other, less important aspects of the story, such as how someone who is basically a few steps up from someone who writes greeting cards could possibly afford a huge apartment with an incredible view of L.A.; how someone at his wage level could even afford an OS at all (he doesn’t even wait until the price comes down like people do today for computers, phones and TV’s, and I wonder what the monthly fee would be for something like this); and why, when Sam sends some of Theodore’s writings (he works for a business that composes letters for people) to a publisher, the first reaction Theodore has isn’t, “you can’t do that, I don’t own the rights to any of them”.
I know. I’m the Grinch here, I fully admit it. I’m sure I missed the point and need to have my head examined. But the whole thing just never came together for me.
The acting is quite strong, I admit. Joaquin Phoenix plays the lead with a post nasal drip and “nerd” glasses (his character’s name is Theodore after all) and he again fully disappears into his role (has he somehow become our Daniel Day-Lewis without our even noticing it?). Amy Adams as Amy has nothing to do and proceeds not to do it, but she’s always a welcome addition. And there’s just something about Scarlet Johansson’s voice as Samantha that reminded me of Jane Fonda’s early kitten roles that’s a lot of fun.
At the same time, I kinda felt the best and most fun performances were given in smaller roles like Chris Pratt as Theodore’s overly friendly, but ingratiating, boss, and Brian Cox as a somewhat pompous Gore Vidal like OS. And did anyone know that there was a Cher impersonator in the movie? It says so in IMDB, but I think I blinked and missed her. It should also be noted that we now have an actor in Portia Doubleday who rivals Benedict Cumberbatch for most Dickensian name.
I also liked Jonze’s habit of suddenly cutting to a silent montage of scenes from Theodore’s past. There was something moving about this in a way I never found the movie as a whole to be. And whose ever idea it was to use Shanghai as the future L.A. deserves a bonus (though I did catch the exit sign in Chinese lettering at one point).
But in the end, I pretty much knew how it was going to resolve itself and I found few surprises along the way. It’s like watching your best friend dating someone you know is bad for him, but there’s nothing you can say or do, you just have to see it through. So I did.