On ‘Transcendence’ the Movie

I’ve been seeing a lot of movies in the theaters recently (i.e., over the last couple years). I’ve never been a consistent movie watcher, and I generally don’t go to the theater to see movies. However, it has become a common date-night activity for me and my partner. This past weekend we saw Transcendence. Now, we plan our trips to the movies roughly 70% of the time, so we are prone to being forced to watch some less-than-stellar films (e.g., Skyline, Pompeii). My five word review of Transcendence: Bad, but it’s no Pompeii.

[Spoilers will definitely follow. Also, what follows is about 98% rant and 2% review.]

Transcendence wants to be a smart movie. It centers on an interesting topic, namely the risks of developing increasingly complex artificial intelligence. It wants to ask the questions about developing AI to the point where it surpasses human intelligence (the singularity); specifically, if it will have a positive or negative outcome. Instead, it insults the audience by thinking it’s smarter than it is, confusing plot twists for commentary.

Lessons about the singularity I learned from watching Transcendence:

1. Women are to blame.

1a. Seriously, ladies, the destruction of the world is your fault. Sure, it may come at the hands of men, but its because we love you. You should feel ashamed.

2. Luddites (with guns, cars, computers, satellite tracking, and the ability to develop radioactive bullets) will oppose the singularity.

3. Civilization’s downfall will start with a TEDTalk. You’ve been warned.

4. Psych! Actually, the singularity wouldn’t have been the downfall of civilization, if only those damn luddites hadn’t killed Johnny Depp.

5. Or am I lying? Maybe it isn’t actually Johnny Depp. It’s an ambiguous ending!

6. But, really, it’s his wife’s fault. If she hadn’t been so ambitious about saving the world, poor Johnny Depp wouldn’t have been cow-towed into maybe-or-maybe-not ruining everything, allowing us to maintain our slow descent into environmental catastrophe. Women are evil.

The thing I find most interesting about the film is the portrayal of the two sides.

On the one hand, we’ve got Johnny Depp (his character’s name is Dr. Will Caster) and his wife (Mrs. Avil Incarnaté-Caster – I’m kidding, but seriously, women are evil). They are in favor of super intelligence because they see it (and technology in general) as a means of making human lives better (ending disease, cleaning up the environment, etc).

On the other hand, we’ve got the luddites (and their allies in Johnny Depp’s former friends Morgan Freeman and the pretend guy from A Beautiful Mind). They seem totally cool with rather advanced technology (see, for example, their use of radioactive bullets). However, they are opposed to super intelligence – be it achieved through AI alone or with human/tech interfacing.

Johnny Depp pros: Saves the environment, cures diseases, heals people and makes them super strong, revitalizes some podunk town in no-where America, still really loves his wife.

Johnny Depp cons: Actually, maybe he doesn’t really love his wife because maybe he’s just the computer and computers can’t love because they don’t have souls or something. He manipulates markets and can spy on everyone. He mind-controls the people he heals, taking away their free will when it suits his purposes, making him akin to a dictator. He is still susceptible to the wiles of woman-kind (no, I’m not gonna drop this stupid, sexist aspect of the plot).

Luddite pros: Um…they wouldn’t allow a super-intelligence to mind-control you. If one arises, they’ll be on hand to artillery that shit to the stone age. Also, nature — ’nuff said.

Luddite cons: They’re cool with radioactive bullets? Really? Also, they’ll kidnap you and hold you against your will until you join their side to oppose Johnny Depp.

So, in conclusion, since both sides are happy to use you against your will, the debate comes down to whether you’d rather be controlled by the singularity (will make your life as perfect as possible, but it may only be an icky computer) or the luddites (who are human -phew- but probably can’t give you a near perfect life). Also, those who consider radioactive bullets a salient issue may consider that a strike against the luddites.

I’m probably being a bit unfair to the film. Overall, it touches on a number of the concerns people have with the singularity. However, it does it in a dumb way. I’m sorry, but I don’t have a more intellectually accurate way of describing it. The movie is dumb. It needed to understand that cliffhangers don’t properly convey ambiguity of an issue. I get that the film didn’t want to firmly take a side, but don’t rely on the final scene to pull a switcheroo and make us ask if it really was or was not Johnny Depp in control.

Verdict: If you want to see it, rent/netflix it. You can do far worse, but this movie suffers from being bland and dumb.




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