Genetic Crossroads

The intersection of biotechnology, reproduction and society

Transcendence

See it for its Cultural Relevance, Not its Plot Line

The new film Transcendence has gotten pretty terrible reviews. I mean, this is the kind of sci-fi film that gets 18% on Rotten Tomatoes. I went to see it prepared to leave with nothing. But honestly, although it didn’t spend much time on elegant dialogue, subtle plot lines, or convincing love scenes, Transcendence gave me plenty to think about.

Maybe it’s the Brit in me; they’ve been kinder to it over there. As leading UK film critic Mark Kermode put it in his largely positive video review, the film falls into the category of “ideas-movies first and plot-movies second.” So I won’t waste much time with the plot, but I can assert that the ideas that propel Transcendence are fascinating.

The movie tackles classic sci-fi archetypes with new possibilities: uploading a human consciousness into a computer, nanotechnology, synthetic biology, and regenerative medicine. All of the technologies described are based on things that scientists are working on right now. And the film provides a pretty good jumping-off point for thinking about what these quickly approaching technologies will actually mean for society.

Johnny Depp, who plays the central character, explains in an interview that this is what makes Transcendence unique.

"This film is foretelling of what is to come. It’s not like ooh, this might happen, ooh we might be able to do this one day in 100 years, 200 years. No, this is technology that will be in use, and is in use to some degree today, but will be in full use in 30-40 years. I mean this is our future."

One could easily mistake the film’s plotline with prominent futurist Ray Kurzweil’s description of “The Singularity,” which he is certain humanity is “on the verge” of achieving.

"In this new world, there will be no clear distinction between human and machine, real reality and virtual reality. We will be able to assume different bodies and take on a range of personae at will. In practical terms, human aging and illness will be reversed; pollution will be stopped; world hunger and poverty will be solved. Nanotechnology will make it possible to create virtually any physical product using inexpensive information processes and will ultimately turn even death into a soluble problem."

It’s no coincidence that the title of this movie is so similar to the title of the 2009 documentary about Kurzweil’s life, Transcendent Man. Now that Kurzweil is a director of engineering at Google and seems to have a growing fan base, this subject matter has tangible cultural relevance and perhaps economic clout. So why has Transcendence gotten such bad reviews?

For one thing, the movie doesn’t follow a traditional sci-fi script. There are fewer explosions and it moves at a slower pace. For some, that took the fun out of the genre. And some were frustrated that we didn’t get an obvious hero or villain.

Maybe we can blame the film’s PR team for setting up the wrong expectations; the trailer makes the movie look like a fast-moving thriller, and we were certainly led to believe there would be clear-cut sides.

But, ambiguity is what makes this subject matter compelling. I think this is what the movie gets absolutely right.

The tension created by radical biotechnologies is fascinating. We want to improve the world around us, but what are we willing to sacrifice along the way? Of course it’s more complicated than right and wrong. The uploaded version of Dr. Will Caster (Depp) plays the villain when he puts his own consciousness into other people. But he plays the hero when he tells his wife that he merely built the world she always wanted. In the end, if we’re uncomfortable it’s because we must wonder if the lovely Dr. Evelyne Caster (Rebecca Hall), the character we are encouraged to like the best, was the monster all along. While Will was satisfied with understanding the natural world, it was Evelyne who wanted to change it.

There is another reason that I suspect caused many people to dislike the movie: It paints a pretty grim picture. Unlike the much-celebrated Her, which made the case that one really could fall in love with an A.I., Transcendence is more interesting for the ways in which it critiques this kind of connection. Uploaded Will seems to be able to respond lovingly to Evelyne, but she feels betrayed and invaded when she learns that he has been doing this through continuous evaluation of her heart rate, chemical imbalances, and brain activity. In one scene, she gets so sick of his omnipresence that she asks him to make all his screens go black, though it’s understood he is still there.

In other words, this is the technology that is supposed to save us, but it only takes one conscious machine and a few years for things to get so out of hand that we are forced to abandon it all, the good with the bad. I understood the ending to be a sinister warning that if synthetic organisms ever do run amok they can never fully be retracted. But others understood the final scene to be a sappy ending to the scientists’ love story, so you’ll have to ponder that one for yourself.

One thing is for sure. We are in an era in which some are completely infatuated with technology and its promise to enhance us as individuals and as a society. One reviewer of that ilk called Transcendence “fear-mongering,” “anti-science crap.” According to another Kurzweil enthusiast, “Technology is how we impregnate the world with mind, it is how we extend the reach of our consciousness, how we extend our agency.” How could anyone stand in the way of that kind of Manifest Destiny?

My guess is that Transcendence is paying the price for showing that hot new biotech, doing exactly what it promises to do, could lead to disaster. As far as our story goes, we’re still in the hero phase. But hey, we’re only human.

Jessica Cussins is a researcher at the Center for Genetics and Society.

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