Box office: 'Transcendence' falters, but is it just the beginning?

One of the axioms of Hollywood is that like follows like. A hit begets other hits (See: every third cable reality show), while a flop, like a crafty Vegas magician, makes all similar projects disappear.

That would seem to be the case for "Transcendence," the $100-million Warner Bros. film about a Johnny Depp-incarnated computer program that may or may not have acquired consciousness. Despite a barrage of TV ads, the film mustered only $11 million and a fourth-place finish on its first weekend of release.

There's an argument to be made that one of the movie's commercial challenges was actually one of its virtues -- that it was, essentially, too nuanced, that with the film's concern with said computer squaring off against an anti-technology group, there's no easy villain, and perhaps no villain at all, something that doesn't tend to work well in big Hollywood releases. It's also possible that ambiguity and the more-questions-than-answers feel to the film became an issue in marketing: the very idea of putting out a film with slippery themes‎ is to retail a movie people can't quite get their hands on.

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But even if the reason “Transcendence” failed is because people simply didn't like or want to see it, that doesn't mean the kind of far-reaching industry consequences that a bomb can sometimes mean.‎ There are certainly several things that could take a hit‎ following the disappointing results, not least the bankability of Depp, who continues to struggle outside an established "Pirates"-like franchise. (There's also the Oscar-winning cinematographer-turned-director Wally Pfister, though to my mind a talented director may find his ‎transition a little rockier. First-timers can often earn another shot, but it will take longer and be smaller, especially if that first-timer is already really good at something else.)

But the one aspect that won't be going anywhere anytime soon is movies about the subject of artificial intelligence -- or, in the parlance of Ray Kurzweil and the field's scientists, the singularity. In fact, there's an argument to be made that it's just getting started.

Yes, ‎a big movie centering on the topic -- and there are several in development around Hollywood --  probably won't be greenlighted tomorrow.  But the through-line of "Transcendence" is something that movies have been increasingly concerned with, and will continue to be. This past winter, "Her" posed similar questions about computer consciousness. “Prometheus” did the same with Michael Fassbender’s android David a couple summers back, and the sequel  (a film developed by the same screenwriter as "Transcendence") could well revisit that thematic turf no matter David's fate.

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Several major coming films will also wade into the questions of intelligent androids, including the biggest of them all, "Star Wars,"  with the return of R2-D2 and C-3P0. Ironically, even as Paul Bettany seemed skeptical of sentient technology in "Transcendence," he is preparing to play an android who develops romantic feelings in "The Avengers 2."‎

The reason it could become a big topic in movies is, of course, because it’s a big topic in society. Hollywood may currently be interested in the folly of Siri (See under: Mike Judge’s good joke on same in a recent episode of “Silicon Valley”). But the fact is that when it comes to computer-based assistants, even the most casual user of technology realizes that’s just the beginning. New developments and complex consequences are only going to keep ratcheting up.

The questions raised by movies about the topic -- whether in the romantic emo manner of “Her” or the clash-of-interest spectacle of “Transcendence” -- will occupy society and the filmmakers who draw inspiration from it, and as a result they’ll occupy our movie screens.

"Transcendence" faltered this weekend. But don't be surprised if the film takes on an added currency and is even seen as prescient as new events turn it and the questions it poses into something increasingly relevant. The film could come to be viewed in the same manner as things in the technology world it portrays -- an early buggy prototype, hardly smooth but part of a wave that started it all.


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