Transcendence (2014)



Director: Wally Pfister

Writer: Jack Paglen

Recommended? maybe, maybe not

I don’t know, maybe I just have a low bar for films. All the reviewers say this movie is crap. That it’s plodding and Johnny Depp isn’t peppy. That it doesn’t explore its heavy subject matter in-depth enough, or that it’s hypocritical that the movie has an anti-technology message yet uses the latest in CGI special effects.

That last critique kind of stuck with me, and I realized… maybe part of why this film is being panned is because people don’t want to think about what it has to say. After all, cries against the “hypocrisy” of the anti-technology crowd are pretty much the mewing of defensive fools who are desperate to discredit the obvious truth that technology can be alienating and destructive.

Transcendence isn’t even an anti-technology film, not really. It’s maybe a parable about how badly power can corrupt, and it certainly seems to be critical of, you know, turning the human population into nanite-driven automatons serving an all-powerful Johnny Depp. And I’m okay with that critique.

I guess, in retrospect, and looking at these reviews, that maybe the film is slow-paced. There aren’t even that many explosions. Oh no. But it’s a good story, well-told. Happy marriage is destroyed by anti-tech extremists. AI researcher uploads his brain into his computer. Anti-tech extremists may have been right. End of industrial civilization (that last bit isn’t a spoiler, it’s the opening scene before a flashback). It gets more complex than that, though not by a lot.

Now, I don’t believe in the singularity. I don’t believe in it like I don’t believe in God: I just don’t think it’s real. Like God, I think it’s a neat fiction. We’ll never upload our consciousness into computers because computers are digital and we’re analogue. The people trying to live forever are barking up the wrong tree. The film gets into this, with lines about legacy and memory being the way that we actually survive past our deaths, yet also flirts with the romantic notion that maybe we could live forever in digital heaven. Again, neat fiction. And at least the film gets at how doing awful things in the name of these neat fictions is awful.

Eco/animal/anti-tech activists are a pretty popular trope in movies. We’ve even caused the end of the world twice before that I can recall (12 Monkeys, 28 Days Later) and certainly threaten to (Sneakers). I don’t think this film really captures what the spirit of resistance groups is all about, and to be frank we’re cardboard characters in this movie. But it’s fascinating to see a movie create a fictional version of a group like Individuals Tending Towards the Wild (a Mexican anti-tech group that murders nanotech scientists… I’m going to go ahead and say I think they are fucked up and it’s rather telling they have explicitly distanced themselves from anarchism) and portrayed it not necessarily sympathetically, but as fighting against a legitimate concern.

I’m a sucker for good sci-fi. And like the best of sci-fi, I think the film touches on things that resonate with us in the here and now. These lessons aren’t just for the potential AI, nanotech future. Specifically, people in this film are lining up to become part of a supersystem that empowers them in some ways but can exert control over them and turns them into living spies for the system.

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