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Philosophy and pop culture

Transcending the Criticisms of Transcendence

The writers of Transcendence were right: people hate what they don't understand

Transcendence came out on DVD this last Tuesday (July 22). A movie about a singularity-hoping-Kurzweil-like scientist who uploads his consciousness into the world's greatest computer, it was a flop at the box office and was lampooned by critics. Consequently, many will think it's not worth renting or buying. However, although I have no horse in the race, it's my goal to convince you otherwise. I contend that it's one of the best movies of the year, and extremely high grade science fiction. The reason that people didn't like it – especially the critics – is because the primary message of the movie is true: people hate and fear what they don't understand… and no one understood Transcendence.

(Unfortunately I won't be able to convince you without spoilers—so consider yourself warned.)

That critics don't understand the film is evident from their summary of the plot, like James Berardinelli who thinks the prologue, where people use laptops for doorstops, is set in a world “where the Internet no longer exists (and its absence has taken down the power grid)…” Wrong; this is inconsistent with the film. The dystopian nature of the world we see at the beginning of the film has nothing to do with the internet or power grids. It's a world in which no computer technology exists. The virus used to defeat the computer that Johnny Depp (Will Caster) uploads himself into—let’s call it “Depp Blue”—has infected everything computerized and rendered it useless; it’s a world, essentially, without technology. This is not just a nitpicky point. It's important for understanding the film; it’s not about power, but technology—specifically computers.

Critic Peter Travers at least understood that much, but he complains that it is just another movie warning us about the forgone conclusion that computers are dangerous—just like countless others before it: Lawnmower Man, AI: Artificial Intelligence and Terminator. According to Travers, Transcendence is just another iteration on this theme, in which computers give someone absolute power, and then all the predictable things happen—like absolute power corrupting absolutely. But this is not what happens! It's as if Travers didn’t even bother to finish the movie.

What happens in the film is that Johnny Depp's character, Will Caster, is mortally wounded (very early in the film) and dying a slow death. Caster is a computer genius who has already designed a computer, much like IBM's Watson, who is extremely powerful and already seems to be able to pass the Turing test – to behave just as a human does. To save his life, Caster's wife Evelyn uploads Caster’s neural configuration into this computer—and then, voila, there is Johnny Depp's face staring back at us from inside the computer screen, complete with all his memories and knowledge. His mind's newfound home has seemingly limitless potential and Computer Caster and his wife set out to build an even bigger computer into which Caster can upload his consciousness. Caster uses his smarts and computer powers to become super rich and take over a small town and construct an underground cavern, in which he and Evelyn build the world’s largest and most powerful computer, fueled by a huge field of solar cells. And once Caster is uploaded into it, he sets himself upon the task of developing and perfecting every technology imaginable.

His most significant achievement is nanotechnology. He builds super tiny robots, which he can program (so that they act on their own) or control directly, that can move matter around on the cellular or even atomic level. As a result, Caster can instantly purify polluted water, repair and grow plants at will, and affect repairs to grotesquely injured human bodies in a matter of seconds—to the point where he can actually bring people back from the dead. And he can even give those he has repaired superhuman powers—such as strength and speed—and control them in a hive like way in which they can effectively work (or fight) together. Thousands of sick and injured start to flock to his compound, Caster heals them and many of them stick around to work at his compound to help him further his cause.

Meanwhile, a group of activists called RIFT—who agree with movie critic Traver’s “foregone conclusion” that computers are necessarily dangerous, and that absolute power will corrupt absolutely—are hell-bent on taking down Caster. When they start finding Caster’s nanobots in everything—the water, the soil, and controlling all computers everywhere—they conclude that Caster is hell-bent on destroying the world.

One thing that makes Transcendence such a good movie, in my eyes, is that it is not derivative. In most movies, you are told quite clearly who the good guys and the bad guys are; what they wear, what they say, and even how they say it makes clear who is who. You are told who to root for, that you should not react any other way, and by the first five minutes you know who will win in the end. But with Transcendence, it is not at all clear who the good guys or the bad guys are. At first it seems to clearly be Caster, but then you start to worry that Caster has become corrupt and it's the activist group RIFT that you should be rooting for. But then again, one common theme in the movie is that people fear that which they do not understand, especially if that thing is new and represents an advancement. This is why RIFT fears Caster in the form of Depp Blue. So when the final battle commences you're not sure what you want to happen; it's not clear whether RIFT’s fears of Depp Blue are justified, or whether Caster was the good guy all along. And it’s still not clear who is in the right until the very end.

Another thing that makes Transcendence great is that it does not beat you over the head with its message. Unlike the movie critic Travers thinks, the Stanley Kubrick and Steven Spielberg “joint” AI: Artificial Intelligence was not a movie about the dangers of technology. It was a movie which suggested that sufficiently developed artificial intelligence would be conscious, and that our ignorance of this fact would likely make us moral monsters. Our assumption that androids are not conscious will have us treating such beings, like the boy David, as pieces of property instead of people. But in Transcendence, it's hard to figure out what the writer or director thinks about this issue. Some characters are deeply convinced that Depp Blue is Caster—that his consciousness resides in it—and others are not. And although I think the most charitable interpretation of the movie suggests the former, it leaves the viewer to decide.

But the message that is clearly endorsed by a careful viewing of the film – again, you have to pay attention all the way to the end—is the exact opposite of what all the critics thought made the movie derivative and uninteresting. The point is not that we should fear computers and technology because they can be dangerous; the point is that our fear of computers and technology has the potential to be the most dangerous thing of all. RIFT is determined to stop Caster, in the form of Depp Blue, because they are convinced that technology is evil. During the movie’s final battle, in which RIFT bombs Depp Blue’s solar field to no avail, they are convinced that Deep Blue is going to kill them all before they can get the computer virus they designed into his system. But, as one amazed RIFT member observes after the battle, Depp Blue “didn't kill anybody.” He merely incapacitated them long enough to do what he wanted to do—before he allowed himself to be killed.

What did he want to do? Take over or destroy the world? To kill all humans, like Bender in Futurama? No. He was putting all his nanobots into everything so that he could, for example, clean all the polluted water and regrow all the oxygen producing plants that we have destroyed. He used the nanobots to bring down the amount of carbon dioxide in the air to fix global warming. Basically, all he wanted to do with his absolute power was to heal the planet. Why? Because he loved Evelyn, and that’s what she wanted.

Of course, if Depp Blue had won the battle, he’d still be the around to keep everything running smoothly. But in their ignorance-fueled desperate attempt to stop him, RIFT infected him with a computer virus that—because of his world wide influence on computers—infected every piece of technology on the planet, rendering it useless. And that’s why the world, is as it is, at the beginning of the film.

RIFT was trying to protect the world from the dangers of technology, but think about how deadly and dangerous the world they created with their virus is. Just think of how many lives the lack of medical technology would cost. Think about how many lives would be lost if we were unable to predict tornadoes and hurricanes—not to mention the absence of radios, television, microwaves, refrigerators, air conditioners and heaters. I could go on and on. And it’s not as if RIFT didn’t know this would be the consequence of their actions. RIFT was concerned about the dangers of Depp Blue—but in reality it was them and their ignorant fear of technology and advancement that was the real enemy.

And that is what makes Transcendence non-derivate, so unique, and such a great movie. I can think of no other movie that's got the guts to criticize the ignorant assumptions and intuitions of its own viewers—especially after it makes a special effort to lead the audience to realize that they hold them. About halfway through the movie you likely are rooting for RIFT, and you agree with them about the dangers of computers and technology. You even think that no good could possibly come of Depp Blue's power because of a mantra: "absolute power corrupts absolutely.” (“That phrase has the world ‘absolute’ in it twice; how could it possibly be wrong?”) But if the critics hadn’t stopped paying attention halfway through, thinking they have already seen it all before, they would have realized how good of a movie Transcendence is. The ending shows us that our fears were misplaced, that our assumptions and intuitions were wrong, and that they could play the biggest role in making the world a dangerous place—and even destroying humankind.

David Kyle Johnson, Ph.D., is an associate professor of philosophy at King's College in Pennsylvania.

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