Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Transcendence (2014)

On the eve of a breakthrough in research on artificial intelligence, an anti-technology terrorist group executes a fatal attack on scientist Will Caster (Johnny Depp). In an attempt to make the most out of a bad situation, Caster's wife, Evelyn (Rebecca Hall), uploads Will's consciousness to create the first truly sentient AI. But upon connecting to the internet, his limitless power leaves humanity fearful for their fate in the hands of an ostensibly God-like being. Cillian Murphy and Kate Mara play an FBI agent and a terrorist leader (respectively), who team up with two of Will's more skeptical colleagues (Paul Bettany and Morgan Freeman), in a last-ditch attempt to destroy Will before it's too late.

Transcendence is a movie with a lot of interesting ideas, but its execution ultimately feels a bit lackluster. Instead of a more nuanced exploration of how sentient AI could jump start humanity's evolution, we get a fast-track look at the seemingly God-like powers such a sentience might have (although there are some considerable leaps of scientific logic, even allowing for the inconceivable intelligence of a networked AI powered by countless quantum computers), and the all-or-nothing solution mankind comes up with as an alternative to handling too much evolutionary progress at once. Either the movie has a concerning technophobic slant, or else it's fairly misanthropic, as it presents mankind as its own greatest obstacle to reaching the next stage of evolution.

Granted, Will's intentions are ambiguous at best, but his positive contributions to technology are impossible to ignore. The movie refrains from propping him up as a mastermind supervillain (sacrificing its potential as a badass action flick in the process), largely letting the (not too sympathetic) terrorist group's uncountered argument on human independence and hive mind set him up as the antagonist that must be stopped. Yet at the same time, he must remain sympathetic, for all of the intriguing concepts that this movie brings up are placed on the back burner to focus instead on the love story at its center. But this strategy was far more effective in Interstellar (in the hands of a better director), and here just feels disappointing.

I know it's standard to maintain a human element when you go into the realm of science-fiction, but sometimes - and this movie demonstrates this well - our humanity gets in the way of progress. For example, one of the film's most clever insights is that human intelligence is irrational (true), and that certain feelings, like love, involve contradictions that an AI would be too logical to ever reconcile (not necessarily), but the film's foregone conclusion is that the illogical consciousness is inherently the superior one (false). Let me say this as a transhumanist - for a movie about transcending humanity, its most fatal flaw is that it fails to transcend.


  1. Oh wow, Kate Mara's in this? I might have to watch it then. I've heard many comparisons between this and Lucy which I saw in theaters over the summer. Lucy was pure fluff but it was good fluff, I recommend it. The only thing it lacked was the very obvious plot trajectory that would have given her a legitimate villain to face.

    Very eloquent review even if I don't know the nuances of the film itself. Can't say Lucy will leave you all that more impressed but on the plus side it is awesome as f^)k.

  2. Lucy - I think Rhonda went to see that, and she said it was great. I'll have to watch it. I like awesome movies, even if they are just fluff. If they're stylistic enough, or fun enough, that's at least as much a justification for a piece of entertainment as something that stimulates your mind.