“Transcendence” is a weird film. I say that not because of how it’s made, or its storyline, but because of its morality. The film wants us to consider three technologies that do not yet exist in our world: Artificial Intelligence, Singularity (the melding of the human brain with computer to allow a person’s brain to be uploaded and housed in a computer), and nanotechnology allowing both organic and inorganic tissue to be repaired. The reason the film is weird lies in its ultimate approval of all of these technologies, its view of critics are fools trapped by their fear, and its disregard for any substantive discussion of these issues, even if the film is little more than people discussing them.
Let’s first set up this plot. Johnny Depp portrays his most normal character in a while, playing Dr. Will Caster, a scientist working on creating a sentient computer (i.e. A.I.). His wife, Evelyn (Rebecca Hall) is also a scientist, as is his best friend, Max (Paul Bettany), who in the past has written articles skeptical of science without ethical oversight. Caster gives a speech at a TED-like tech conference talking about Singularity (which he dubs “Transcendence”, hence the title), where he is shot by a member of a “neo-Luddite” terrorist group called RIFT, a group seemingly made up of former computer science interns who use computers for some things, but are wary of Artificial Intelligence. The precise message of RIFT is kind of lost in the film as they don’t seem to be completely against all technology, but whether they only have a problem with sentient technology or not isn’t clarified.
Caster survives the bullet, though RIFT succeeds in killing and/or blowing up other scientists across the country. However, the bullet he was shot with was laced with a radioactive isotope, meaning he will die of radiation poisoning in 4-5 weeks. Evelyn, filled with pain and grief, decides to try uploading Caster’s brain into an A.I. he already built in an attempt to keep him alive past his physical expiration. Caster dies, and the upload eventually works. Max, who is unsure if the program now calling itself Will Caster is truly a 100% copy of Caster or the A.I. pretending to be Caster not that the computer has his memories to work off of, is skeptical of letting the Caster program run free on the internet. Well, RIFT kidnaps Max and tries to get the jump on Evelyn and destroy the computer housing Caster, but Evelyn hooks Caster up to the internet and gets away.
Years later, Max is part of RIFT, Evelyn and the Caster program have built a large facility underneath a Podunk town working on nanotechnology to clean water and heal human injuries, and Evelyn grows suspicious of her computerized husband.
The dangers of A.I. have been covered in sci-fi films for a long time, and the premise has brought us everything from “The Terminator” and “The Matrix”, to last year’s excellent “Her”. Singularity has been less covered, but this film did bring to mind “The Lawnmower Man”, where a scientist takes a simple man and using virtual reality, or something, made him a megalomaniacal genius. What’s weird about “Transcendence” is that while the film plays out as if it is an anti-science you-shouldn’t-play-god film, as most sci-fi films dealing with these subjects are to a certain extent, THIS film is purely on the pro-science side. Caster does some ethically dubious things in this film once he’s a computer. He repairs injured human beings, but then he shows that he can pretty much shut them off and take over in the driver’s seat, boating about how they can be part of a collective. Sure, being able to see when you’ve been born blind is nice, but having to give up your individuality in order to be healed seems like a pretty steep price, yet the film ultimately seems okay with humanity paying that price. Weird. Beaten to within an inch of your life? No worries! The computer will heal you, and even give you super strength, as long as you let it sit in the driver’s seat of your body here and there, and presumably see everything you see and listen in on your every thought. The film doesn’t treat this as being as creepy as it is.
Caster never kills anyone, which always gives him, in the film, the moral high ground over RIFT and the skeptics in the film, who often kill people or otherwise put people in harm’s way for their ideological purposes. The thing is: RIFT has a point. If you upload a person’s brain to a computer, that computer is NOT that person. At BEST, it will be a 100% copy of that person. However, when that person has access to computing power, he or she will become exponentially smarter and more powerful, and with access to the internet and an infinite IQ would mentally evolve in a way that the physical person never could, thereby not making a much of a difference how much of the person started off in the computer. As for A.I. itself, no less an authority than Stephen Hawking, perhaps the smartest man currently alive, has expressed misgivings. A sentient computer with access to the internet would control everything from the stock market to the power grids. I’m a little weary of handing over control over pretty much all of live to a super-intelligent computer who may know logic but lack empathy. Even a movie as shitty as “Eagle Eye” showcases these dangers. “Transcendence” stacks the deck by having our A.I. be a likeable sort who looks like Johnny Depp and just HAPPENS to never do anything too too bad (he does manipulate the stock market for his wife to get their lab going, but aside from the healing-people-and-making-them-his-slaves-thing he’s a rather benevolent computer), but in real life I’m not sure we as a race would be so lucky.
The film wants to be firmly pro-science, which is admirable since there are few pro-science films in the sci-fi genre. Science run amok makes for more entertaining narratives, though perhaps has also instilled in audiences an irrational fear toward science, which may be contributing to mistrust in it. It may be a stretch to say that sci-fi films have unintentionally lead to Climate Change denialism, but it’s something worth exploring. The issue with “Transcendence” is that it unfairly stacks the deck, and ignores legitimate issues with the particular scientific issues it discusses by making the opposition reactionary terrorists. Personally, I’m far from anti-science, but the possibility of A.I. makes me thing it would be the worst thing science has given us since the atomic bomb.
The ethics of Nanotechnology aren’t really dealt with in the film, but it’s an interesting topic in and of itself and I hope a film does discuss it in the future. If tiny robots could be used to repair organic tissue, we’d see the end to a lot of disease. I worry about overpopulation after that, but that’s another issue and the subject of another movie.
Moral qualms aside, “Transcendence” is at least an entertaining film, sometimes smart, and wholly watchable all the way through. The problem is that it is, above all else, an ideas film. There’s some action, but most of the film is about people talking about what is right, what is wrong, and whether science has gone too far. I believe the film deals with the argument unfairly and comes out on the wrong side of things, but I appreciate it’s attempt at something a bit more original, and at least dipping it’s toe into the wading pool of idea-driven-science-fiction. But the film is no “Gattaca”, my favorite sci-fi lm and a template for idea-driven sci-fi in my mind. Hell, it’s not even “Her”, a far better film about Artificial Intelligence that deals with its subject matter fairly and interestingly. B.