Dr Caster (Johnny Depp) performs highly controversial experiments in the field of Artificial Intelligence. His goal is to construct a machine that combines every human emotion with the collective intelligence of everything ever known to man. But there are anti-technology extremists out there who will do everything they can to stop him from creating this new powerful new computer.

 

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Like any kid raised on a diet of Heinlein, ‘Doc’ Smith and Gene Wolfe, I want good sci-fi movies. It’s too much, perhaps, to hope for a return to the salad days of the pre-Star Wars 1970s, when Hollywood (and, to a lesser extent, the UK) tried to find an a cinematic analogue for the SF New Wave that was then upending the genre—writers like Samuel R. Delany, Michael Moorcock, J.G. Ballard, Harlan Ellison. That period, one of transition and not a little uncertainty, left us with both auteur statements (Nic Roeg’s The Man Who Fell to Earth, Louis Malle’s Black Moon) and solid journeyman work (Robert Wise’s excellent, underrated The Andromeda Strain)—as well as a brace of weird, genuinely unclassifiable movies: No Blade of Grass, The Final Programme, The Terminal Man... Voyages that took us more often into inner rather then outer space.

But then R2D2 came along. The destruction of the Death Star changed not only sci-fi movies, but the entire industry. Out went small, thoughtful storytelling, speculative or otherwise; in came the big, brawny tentpole blockbuster. And combined with the growing sophistication of visual effects, it subordinated narrative to spectacle, with a deleterious effect on characterisation, adult emotions, ideas. (Indeed, the dumbing-down of modern cinema could hardly be more concisely illustrated than in the descent from Alien to Prometheus.)

This one—the directorial debut of Wally Pfister, Christopher Nolan’s regular cinematographer—at least boasts a desire to engage with some of the actual, real-world issues currently perplexing our scientists and leaders: the possibility of a singularity posed by artificial intelligence; the physically and socially transformative enhancements of nanotechnology. Which only makes the fact that it then doesn’t know what to do with them only the more frustrating.

Dr. Will Caster is a world-renowned cyberneticist who also happens to look like Johnny Depp; unsurprisingly, he’s regarded as something of a rock star in the scientific community. But his keynote address at a conference, hymning the potential (and the inevitability) of AI, coincides with a co-ordinated attack by RIFT, an activist group fearful of ceding the planet to supercomputers which might supplant rather than assist mankind. Scientists are murdered at a number of leading computer labs—and just minutes after coming offstage, Caster himself is shot by a would-be assassin.

He’s only wounded—the bullet ‘just grazed’ him, we’re told—but it stretches credulity when he’s shown strolling around in the very next shot, meeting with a fellow scientist (Morgan Freeman, in his now-patented Kindly Old Black Man mode) and a CIA agent (Cillian Murphy) to assess the situation. Will’s lab is the only one left intact... which seems rather an oversight on the terrorists’ part, given that it houses PINN, the world’s most advanced artificial intelligence—Will’s crowning achievement, and the emblem of everything they’re fighting against.

Unfortunately, it’s soon revealed that the bullet which ‘just grazed’ him was coated in polonium, and the element has now poisoned his bloodstream. He has a little over a month to live. Desperate, his wife and co-researcher Evelyn suggests to their colleague Max that they run with the pioneering spirit of some of Will’s recent experiments, and upload his consciousness. His physical body will die, yes—but his intelligence could live on, within the cloud. In fact, it would be amplified: filtered through potentially every computer on the planet.

Before long, Will has died/entered virtual mode, speaking first through their computer’s speakers and then their smartphones, like some super-Suri. And if by now you’re thinking this might as easily have been called ‘Him’, you’re not mistaken. But the comparison is not to this film’s benefit. Spike Jonze is an astonishingly talented director, and Pfister’s comparative inexperience shows, at both a performance and a tonal level. Jonze manages to make poetry out of his conceit—you buy the idea of ‘Samantha’ instantly, are moved and seduced by it—whereas this one remains prosaic, and stubbornly unconvincing.

Part of the reason, I think, might lie in the imposition of a thriller-style narrative upon proceedings, which seems misjudged throughout, and culminates in a final, action-packed confrontation in the desert as perfunctory as any I can remember. In fact, not a single aspect of this plot-strand is done with the slightest conviction. Kate Mara plays the leader of the RIFT bunch, a wild-eyed techno-anarchist (you know she’s anti-establishment from her ghastly roots) who seems destined to play some major part in whatever shit is going down—except that she doesn’t. From midway through the film she pretty much vanishes... before popping up again at the end, to wave a gun around and shout, and exert no influence whatsoever upon the climax.

Likewise, Paul Bettany’s Max, Will’s best friend and amanuensis. Who is established as the film’s conscience (‘Will is not a monkey!’ he reminds Evelyn, helpfully), only to spend most of the film’s second act offscreen—locked up in some desert camp by the RIFT people, during which time he seems to come to some Damascene realisation; by the time he reappears, he’s one of the activists, a card-carrying believer in the cause to stop Will at any cost.

But how this happened, or when, remains vague. But then, time is slippery, here: I have no idea how much of it passes between individual scenes, no sense of the development of the broader narrative whatsoever. Instead, everything here is subordinated to the relationship between Will (or rather, the computer-intelligence who may or may not be Will) and his loving, steadfast wife. Which might hold some appeal, were it not for the limitations of those performances. As Evelyn, Rebecca Hall seems uncertain throughout, and her character, despite supposedly being a respected scientist in her own right, is as subordinated to her husband—as dwarfed by his towering genius—as Rose Tyler was to the Doctor.

And then there’s Johnny Depp. In a recent episode of Community, weighing the merits of major actors, one of the characters noted that, just as Nic Cage was ‘the good kind of bad’, Depp was ‘the bad kind of good’... and it’s hard not to agree. He’s most comfortable at his most cartoonish—not for nothing has he worked so often with Tim Burton—and here, obliged to play drama rather than pantomime, he simply lacks the technique to pull it off. (See also: The Ninth Gate, Finding Neverland.) He seems mannered and abstracted, his line-deliveries weighed down by a frankly baffling choice of accent. (For the first ten minutes, I wondered if his character was supposed to be Swiss.) It’s not helped by the fact that his performance is reduced, for the most part, to what’s effectively a Skype call... but you sense, nonetheless, that he’s phoning this one in.

As Will 2.0, he begins to transform a desert town and assemble an army of nano-enhanced, zombie-like slaves; gradually, even loyal Evelyn begins to realise that none of this might constitute a good thing for humanity. Allusions abound: my wife saw it as an extended metaphor for GM foods, whereas I thought it was, at least in part, a satire of Scientology. (The creepy welcomes of the locals: ‘We’re happy to have you...’) Directorially, Pfister has learned much from his erstwhile boss. He’s cast many of the same actors from Nolan’s films (Freeman, Murphy, Hall, Lukas Haas), and he’s copped a number of those movies’ best moves—notably, the sudden, lurching shift to an aerial POV shot. But for a director of photography, his visual imagination seems oddly impoverished. The film is weirdly short of arresting imagery; not a single shot surprises, much less ravishes. (The cinematography is handled by a fellow Brit, Jess Hall.)

Ultimately, though, the film is handicapped by its script—and specifically, its writer’s inability to settle upon exactly what he wants to say about mankind’s relationship with the machines that it creates. It’s been attacked as a anti-technology screed, but I’m not sure it’s as simple as that. For a while it seems to endorse the ‘grey goo’ hypothesis of nanotechnology (cf. Greg Bear’s great novella Blood Music)... but it’s vision of a post-tech future is hardly a utopian one. There are one or two sly in-jokes (checking into a hotel, Evelyn uses the name ‘Turing’—a reference to The Turing Test, used to determine whether a computer could pass convincingly for a human being), but mostly the mood is sombre, portentous. And neither Depp’s last line, nor the film’s final shot, make the slightest bit of damn sense whatsoever—each either contradicts or confuses everything we’ve seen to that point.

More baffling to me is why the film would use that hoariest and most boring of structural conceits: opening with its ending—then flashing back to tell us how we got there. Apart from the fact that this tells us exactly what happened (even to the point of supplementing the images with a voiceover), and thereby robs the narrative of any sense of tension (since we already know how this story ends), does anyone honestly believe this is a novel or interesting way to start a movie anymore? It’s been a long time since Sunset Boulevard... maybe we should lay this device to rest, huh?