Transcendence is directed by Wally Pfister and stars Johnny Depp and Rebecca Hall.
Transcendence, the directorial debut of acclaimed cinematographer Wally Pfister, was without doubt one of the most highly anticipated movies of the year thus far. Starring the always intriguing Johnny Depp as brilliant scientist Will Caster (modelled in part on real-life futurist Ray Kurzweil), and with Christopher Nolan on board as executive producer, the movie promised to be a provocative exploration of what might happen if (some would say “when”) we reach the Singularity, and machines transcend human intelligence. But despite high expectations, it would be no overstatement to say that reviewers despised it. Rolling Stone critic Peter Travers claimed that the movie was “maybe one of the biggest disappointments of the year.” Chris Nashawaty’s review in Entertainment Weekly called the script “a cockamamie mishmash of Big Ideas and TED Conference buzzwords that sound smart, but don’t compute.” And writing in Salon, Andrew O’Hehir summarised the movie as “a moronic stew of competing impulses – bad science meets bad sociology meets bad theology.”
But was it also bad philosophy? Despite the dreadful reviews, I held out hope that it might be philosophically stimulating. After all, with the plot revolving around the attempt to upload Caster’s consciousness to a supercomputer after an attack by anti-technology zealots leaves him dying, the movie seemed perfectly poised to deal with various Big Questions – questions about machine intelligence and sentience, about the nature of the self, and in fact, the nature of humanity, about the looming threats of technology, and so on. Indeed there were glimmers among the reviews that gave me reason for optimism. Though Manohla Dargis writing in The New York Times called Transcendence “predictable and ridiculous”, she also noted that it “raises the question of what – as the machines rise – makes us human and why, which certainly gives you more to chew on at the multiplex than is customary these days”.
In fact, my hope stayed alive for a good chunk of the movie. Sure, aspects of the plot were implausible, and the talents of actors such as Morgan Freeman and Kate Mara were sadly wasted in surprisingly undeveloped supporting roles. And the movie wasn’t really providing any interesting insight into the Big Questions that it was raising. But at least it was raising them, and to a philosopher, of course, such questions are compelling in and of themselves. Unfortunately, though, whatever hope I had that the overwhelming majority of critics might be wrong died a painful death in the last third of the movie, when it went completely off the rails. I’m not much for spoilers – even for movies that are intrinsically spoiled – so I won’t say much here. Perhaps it’s enough to note that the sparkly wisps of thousands of nanobots rising from beneath the ground took things just a little too far for my tastes.
In the last twenty years, we’ve seen a slow but steady stream of films –The Matrix, Memento, Inception – that combine quality filmmaking with deft treatment of deep philosophical issues. But a movie doesn’t have to be a cinematic masterpiece to be philosophically worthwhile. To give just one example, consider The Thirteenth Floor, which is in many ways a complete howler of a movie but yet manages nonetheless to provide new insight into the possibility that our world might be nothing but a simulation. Unfortunately, Transcendence doesn’t really rise even to this level. We already know that technology is dangerous, and that fooling around with it may lead to perils that we don’t expect. We know that the rise of super-intelligent machines is going to be very, very scary. And we know that when someone chooses to play God it usually doesn’t end well (for anyone).
Perhaps the most philosophically interesting parts of Transcendence concern the relationship between the uploaded-Caster and his wife Evelyn (Rebecca Hall), who is desperate to believe that her husband has lived on. The asymmetries that would inevitably be present in a romantic relationship between a human and a machine are depicted with remarkable creepiness as the uploaded-Caster attempts to show his affection for his wife. But even these issues of human-machine interaction have been much more successfully explored elsewhere (for example in Spike Jonze’s recent Her).
I’m sure there’s a script out there waiting to be made that will explore the coming Singularity in a philosophically provocative way. Unfortunately, however, Transcendence isn’t it. It’s not quite as bad as the overwhelming majority of critics thought it was, and Dargis is right that it’s more thought-provoking than the usual big-budget cinematic fare. But of course that’s not saying much. In point of fact, the real-life Kurzweil is infinitely more interesting than this cinematic echo of him; ultimately, then, anyone who wants to engage cinematically with these sorts of philosophical issues would probably be better off simply watching the similarly titled Transcendent Man, a 2009 documentary about Kurzweil’s own quest for transcendence.