Movie Review - Transcendence
Published January 26, 2015
Released April 18, 2014. Directed by Wally Pfister. Written by Jack Paglen. Starring Johnny Depp, Rebecca Hall, Morgan Freeman, Paul Bettany, Ciliian Murphy, and Kate Mara. IMDB summarizes the plot as:
A scientist's drive for artificial intelligence, takes on dangerous implications when his consciousness is uploaded into one such program.
Transcendence is a terribly flawed movie, with an incredibly awesome premise and some great technological and philosophical ideas at the core. I remember when I first saw the trailer for the film…
I was absolutely blown away, that Hollywood was actually tackling the concept of the Singularity, head on, it looked like. As the 2nd trailer was released, it looked like they’d really nailed a compelling story.
Unfortunately, like so many other movies, the trailers were the best thing about the movie. They didn’t have the burden of portraying the overburdened and all too typical plot.
SPOILER ALERT - it’s impossible to discuss the problems with this film without going into spoilers. Since it’s been out almost a year, read on at the risk of having the plot revealed, if you haven’t already seen it.
The movie starts with a terrorist attack, and that’s really where the problems begin. RIFT (Revolutionary Independence From Technology) makes the leap from “putting cellphones into blenders” and writing about people spending too much time on social networks, to full on coordinated terrorist attacks/assassinations that take out literally all but a handful of AI experts, coincidentally the movie’s main characters. And the issue with how RIFT is portrayed doesn’t stop there. The movie itself seems schizophrenic, treating RIFT as the heroes resisting the terrible consequences of AI that are building throughout and then utterly reversing course towards the end of the film.
So, part of the movie seems to be celebrating the terrorist Ludditism. And that leads me to a big problem I have with the AI itself. The various hints that the film gives us that the AI version of Johnny Depp’s Will Caster isn’t the same entity as the original human contradicts the end reveal that it’s been Will all along. If the AI were truly Will (as the ending reveals), then those mistakes and hints that indicate that the AI isn’t truly human are misplaced. I just don’t buy that, that it would not have foreseen the reactions of the humans in resistance.
And maybe it’s just me as an IT engineer, but the idea that the AI would choose one solitary location in the US, which is easily found by both the terrorists in RIFT and the US government, is simply ridiculous. A vastly better version of an AI taking over is portrayed in Daniel Wilson’s book, Robopocalypse - in that book, the AI uses front corporations to have a drilling crew implant the central CPU in a very remote location in the arctic, and of course eliminates that crew. What’s more, a REAL AI would be smart enough to know that putting all of your eggs in one basket, like a single centralized datacenter, would be silly. I might have bought that had the movie spent even a second justifying the quantum core CPUs as all having to be in a single location… but that would also be contradictory to the way that the Will Caster AI copies itself into the Internet at the beginning of the movie.
Transcendence also suffers from the same “hero” syndrome that a lot of Hollywood movies do. I’m thinking of movies like Independence Day, where Jeff Goldblum uploads a virus from his 1990s Mac PowerBook that takes down a highly advanced alien race. In the same way, the idea that Paul Bettany’s Max character (who is portrayed as a doctor more than a technologist) could still understand the source code of the AI, enough to write a virus that would basically destroy the world… I’m sorry, I just don’t buy it.
And that ultimately is the main problem I have with Transcendence. It’s filled with awesome technology, it has a great AI-upload idea as the core of its story, and it also had some incredible acting and film-making talent behind it. But it’s loaded with contradictions, pessimism, and inconsistent characterizations. Rebecca Hall’s Evelyn is willing to sacrifice everything to save her husband, uploading him into the AI in the first place. And then suddenly, she decides it isn’t really her husband and joins up with RIFT and the US government to upload the virus to destroy him. Until she suddenly realizes it was her husband all along. It makes the viewer feel like a yo-yo.
So on the one hand, it’s incredibly heartening that Hollyood is taking on themes like the Singularity, transhumanism, nanotechnology, and AI itself. But it continues to subordinate those themes and ideas to typical Hollywood action and drama plots. It seems like it’s up to more independent films, like The Machine (one of our favorite films from 2014) and maybe this year’s Ex Machina, to really up the stakes. Fortunately with trends like crowd funding and the Internet itself as a distribution platform, it does look like there’s a much wider marketplace for those types of films going forward.
Transcendence could have been so much more… but it couldn’t transcend the Hollywood production process.
Mike's Recommended Reading:
Transcendence official site
R.I.F.T. (Revolutionary Independence From Technology) - website for the movie's fictional terrorist group
Transcendence official trailer #1
Episode 15 - Robots Taking Over which explains the concept of the Singularity
Technological Singularity (on Wikipedia)
Ray Kurzweil, the "real life Will Caster" (on Wikipedia)
KurzweilAI.net, a site devoted to the concept of the Singularity, AI, and accelerating change