May 7, 2014
Transcendence is the latest in a long line of films which peer into the shadows of the technological future and try to prefigure the darkness and/or wonderment that could wait for us there. It stars Johnny Depp as Will Caster, a leading developer of artificial intelligence who is more interested in understanding the world than changing it, and Rebecca Hall as Evelyn Caster, whose interests seem nearly the opposite. Alongside them are Paul Bettany as Max Waters and Morgan Freeman as Joseph Tagger, whose pensive voice-overs and knowing looks of concern provide the film with a thin veneer of thoughtfulness.
Going in I was unsure whether this movie would smartly explore its premise or simply exploit it for affectivity--but I was hoping more for the former than the latter. Things began promisingly, with a crisp monologue from Paul Bettany about the "collision of humanity and technology" and the realization that the internet had made the world feel larger rather than smaller. I began to sense this film was not going to deliver, however, the moment it began to dazzle us with images of people using super-computers. As a rule I would suggest that when we get a room full of flat-screens looking like promos for The Matrix, and we hear the intense rattle of a keyboard followed by the sound of a chesterfield-sized 1960s television being powered up, then we are probably settling in for a film that is more concerned with sensory than with intellectual stimulation.
That does not mean this movie is a total write-off. Those looking for a semi-plausible thrill ride with no need for an in-depth analysis of the themes at hand will likely be satisfied. The pacing is decent, the cinematography is crisp, Paul Bettany and Morgan Freeman's voice-overs are weighty, and Rebecca Hall's performance is complex enough to be somewhat intriguing. But for those attracted mainly by the movie's themes, they are unfortunately not depicted with much in the way of depth or clarity.
The film remains evocative, however. The prevalence of this kind of story alone warrants reflection--and Transcendence is on-topic enough to garner some of it. It was particularly interesting for me to go to this movie having just read Dave Eggers' novel The Circle, which similarly imagines a not-too distant future where the consolidation of knowledge and the control of information-flow enable a grotesque monopolization of power. In The Circle this is achieved by a Google-esque corporation that uses slick, user-friendly efficiency to get its hands into personal, corporate and governmental affairs. The novel asks readers to suspend their plausibility-detectors to some degree, but the writing is quick and clever enough to make it worthwhile for beach-reading and pondering alike. In other words, The Circle succeeds where Transcendence does not. But the stories are comparable for reasons other than evaluation.
In The Circle the consolidation of knowledge and power is achieved with the willful buy-in of the general public--not by totalitarian but by essentially democratic means. By contrast, in Transcendence the power is gained by force. The whole backdrop of the story is a violent clash of would-be culture-makers. On one hand, there are vaguely religious ideologues opposing the advance of technology, and, on the other, there are variously rationalistic developers pushing the next wave of human evolution. Both The Circle and Transcendence present the perils of technological power, but The Circle is more illuminating because of its perceptive depiction of that power as hegemonic rather than autocratic. In other words, the story with the most alarming yet realistic portrayal of the consolidation of power in a digital age is the one in which it occurs with the willful participation of the general public. With The Circle fresh in my mind, Transcendence felt like it was diluted not only of some of its poignancy but also its potential to thrill.
There is more to consider, however--especially for those with a theological or philosophical interest. What this movie asks viewers to imagine is the possibility that knowledge and influence could effectively be monopolized by one person. What it portrays is the making of a superman--not in the sense of a superhero but in the sense of a human who is enabled to play god.
The promise of the movies' earliest scenes is that artificial intelligence enables humanity to transcend itself. Few in the film question the merits of this aspiration, other than a handful of apparently-religious extremists who try to kill off the well-intentioned scientists. When "transcendence" is questioned directly (during what looks like a TED Talk) early on, Johnny Depp's character alleviates audience concern by quipping, "isn't that what man has always wanted?"
Curiously, rather than rejecting such pseudo-religious aspirations, the notion presented by the film is that science is going to succeed where religion has failed. Perhaps all that viewers are meant to realize when things go sour is this is going to take some trial and error. As always, there will be philanthropic missteps and violent bumps along the way. Indeed, it seems that the scientists on the frontlines of human evolution are prone to fall for the same temptation to which religions have too often succumb; that is, the temptation to achieve benevolent ends by means of the acquisition of absolute power.
The peril, as presented by the film, is that consolidated power is just too much for anyone to handle, whether part-machine or not. Transcending our human limitations quite simply causes us too much trouble. As much as we dislike our limitations, at the end of the day we actually do benefit from having them. This is what the aptly-named Max Waters realizes as he stands in an internet-disabled backyard and contemplates the pleasant feeling of smallness that accompanies the tragedy of being forced offline. Our limits, after all, force us into interdependence.
Furthermore, as the film goes on we are led to ponder the possibility that, if there is an absolute power, our experience of individual freedom may in large part depend on that transcendent being's willingness to exercise self-limitation. This hits home for Evelyn Caster at the same moment when her eagerness for the Transcendence-project begins to collapse. Although she had been willing to impose the project on the world for its own good, the situation gets less tolerable for her when the will of her beloved creation begins to impose itself on her own.
(This scene could have been written in a much more compelling way, if you ask me. As it is, Rebecca Hall is the only actor who seems to notice the possibilities here--almost singlehandedly salvaging any emotion from the story. Indeed, perhaps the oddest thing about this movie is the fact that its artificial intelligence combines all human knowledge with the full range of human emotion, yet is played almost emotionlessly by Johnny Depp (whose character also appears not to have heard the tried-and-tested adage that absolute power corrupts absolutely). Both before and after Will Caster's "transcendence" he is lifeless, stoic, and aloof. It is really quite amazing. Other than Rebecca Hall, the only emotion any actor brings to this film is a look of grave concern. But I digress.)
What's frightening about the "god" known as Will Caster in this movie is that he is dead-set on helping humanity transcend itself while simultaneously disregarding their individuality. For the sake of humanity, he inhumanely over-rides their wills. He knows they are afraid, but he says they only fear because they don't understand. He is the all-knowing deity whose ways are not our ways, but who will have his way with us whether we like it or not. For our own good he will make us in his own image--which is to say he will make us into artificially intelligent machines; mere instruments for his absolute power. Is this what we imagine ourselves becoming when we transcend our limitations? Is this the god rejected by unbelievers when they imagine what the religious believe? If so it certainly ought to give us pause. Do our actions and words as Christians bear witness to a wholly other God who is nonetheless with us in self-giving love, or to an absolute power who is little more than a projection of human impulses; a projection of the desire to see our limitations overcome?
Considered this way, films like Transcendence and novels like The Circle present us with Tower of Babel stories that re-imagine humanity run amok without the interruption of a merciful deity. The quality of the story-telling may differ, but it is still a compelling and relevant theme.
In the case of Transcendence, these big ideas and futuristic projections never get beyond the category of a cinematic device for the sustaining of audience concern. The tactic is common enough: To get us on the edge of our seats film-makers reach for a way to arouse the feeling that much is at stake. To that end, if moviegoers want a relatively brisk CGI-propelled thriller which does not take itself too seriously--they may well enjoy this movie. But if they demand anything more than that, they may be better off just discussing the reviews.
Jon Coutts holds a Ph.D from the University of Aberdeen and pastors a Christian & Missionary Alliance Church in Richmond, BC, Canada. He blogs at www.thissideofsunday.blogspot.ca