Movie Review: Transcendence - Hope 103.2

Movie Review: Transcendence

Transcendence is over-reaching itself

By Mark HadleyMonday 28 Apr 2014MoviesReading Time: 3 minutes

Transcendence is one of those much-anticipated films that might end up suffering from its own level of hype: Johnny Depp, the soul of a super Artificial Intelligence, that will lift the world to incredible heights or cast it into a new dark age. What’s not to like? But it’s suffering at the box office not because the acting or effects are bad but because its plot goes gigabytes too far.

Transcendence opens with Johnny Depp as the genius Dr. Will Caster who occupies the ‘bleeding edge’ when it comes to creating computer minds. However Caster and a number of his colleagues become the victims of an anti-technology terrorist group. With her husband dying, Evelyn Caster (Rebecca Hall) decides to download his brainwaves into their pet super-computer. The result is one A.I. to rule them all. Released to the Internet, Caster-the-computer begins integrating himself into every system from the FBI to Wall Street. His super computing powers and vast resources lead to technological breakthroughs that stagger the mind, like microscopic robots to rebuild human tissue and restore the environment. But what happens when this A.I. begins to believe it can improve on humanity?

Now it’s worth bearing in mind that the technology of Transcendence is actually not the most unrealistic part of its plot. ‘Nanobots’ are actually under development in labs around the world and the ‘singularity’ – the climactic melding of humanity and technology – has been a point of concern at universities for many years. No, the problem with Transcendence is what it expects from humanity.

In 1995 The Net imagined a strangely similar scenario where the interconnectedness of computer systems allowed a villain to snatch away Sandra Bullock’s identity. However, like Transcendence, it suffered from serious logic leaps because both films fail to allow for the industry’s well known frailties. Their computers always deliver more than expected, never suffer from Window’s blue screen of death, and no evil plan gets held up by hardware that just can’t be plugged in.

human weaknesses are even more surprising – genius wives who have no doubt the voice speaking from the computer is their dead husband, government agencies who believe ten guys and a howitzer are enough to deal with a vast underground bunker, and souls that are somehow improved by the digitizing process… Perhaps the most unbelievable aspect of Transcendence’s super A.I. is the suggestion humans created it.

Scriptwriter Jack Paglen goes out of his way to drum up the messianic qualities of this new form of life. The multitudes flock to Castor-the-computer’s desert home for healing and the first words to emerge from the mouth of a man born blind are, “Oh God!” This is humanism at its best: humanity inventing its own saviour. At an early press conference Castor even recognizes this as our secret desire:

Audience member: “So you want to create a god – your own God?”

Castor: “That’s a good question. Isn’t that what man has always done?”

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But I think the audience instinctively realizes that Transcendence is over-reaching itself. Maybe that’s Paglen’s intention; maybe it’s just the failed logic-leaps. The film would like to suggest that human limitations like sympathy and morality are actually some of our best qualities. But I think it’s really another human quality that’s holding us back. 

Humans are only capable of making something in their own image and whatever that is the result is unlikely to be as optimistic as this film’s conclusion. Of course we can dream of perfection but that’s only because we’ve seen perfection’s fingerprints – in rare moments of genius and self-sacrifice, or the life-time perfection of Jesus Christ. It’s no wonder Castor’s character emulates him. But what we can’t do is produce that perfection on our own because we’re faulted and living in a faulted world. So, without some outside Perfection to assist us, what we make will inevitably be faulted as well. 

Rating: M
Distributor: Roadshow
Release Date: April 24