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Transcendence [film]

Entry updated 16 February 2017. Tagged: Film.

American film (2014). Alcon Entertainment/DMG Entertainment/Straight Up Films. Directed by Wally Pfister. Written by Jack Paglen. Cast includes Paul Bethany, Clifton Collins Jr, Johnny Depp, Morgan Freeman, Rebecca Hall, Cory Hardrict, Cole Hauser, Falk Hentschel, Kate Mara and Cillian Murphy. 119 minutes. Colour.

Brilliant Computer Scientist Will Caster (Depp), one of several researchers intent upon developing an advanced artificial intelligence (see AI), is shot as part of a coordinated attack on scientists by anti-Technology terrorists and, hit by a polonium bullet, is doomed to die. His wife Evelyn (also a computer scientist) and collaborator Max Waters (Bethany) then employ an experimental technique to Upload his intelligence into a computer. Once connected to the Internet, Caster's disembodied intelligence expands enormously, and he quickly builds a huge complex to develop new technologies, including a machine that miraculously cures all diseases and heals all injuries. Yet his apparent quest for unlimited power alarms Waters, a terrorist he has befriended named Bree (Mara), another of Caster's colleagues named Joseph Tagger (Freeman), and FBI agent Buchanan (Murphy), who collectively seek to destroy him, eventually recruiting Evelyn to join their cause, even though the effort will require shutting down the internet and all of Earth's electric power. Once he is eliminated, it appears that Caster's initiatives actually had the benign motive of repairing Earth's ravaged environment (see Ecology), benefiting humanity even as everyone is forced back into a preindustrial lifestyle.

From one perspective, this film is merely an updated version of an ancient sf trope, the brain detached from the human body which develops vast mental powers, becomes cold and unemotional, and seeks to dominate others until it is providently killed, as most famously observed in Curt Siodmak's novel Donovan's Brain (September-November 1942 Black Mask; 1943) and its various official and unofficial film adaptations (see Donovan's Brain); the only difference is here that the brain is uploaded into a computer instead of being transplanted into a jar or robotic body. However, like the film which this one most resembles, The Colossus of New York (1958), Transcendence also suggests that such detached intelligences might retain a vestige of human warmth and compassion. Further, since one must assume that Caster was complicit in his own demise (because he surely could have figured out a way to survive an assault which he anticipated), he arguably represents an instance of an advanced artificial intelligence which concludes that humans can best progress without advanced artificial intelligences, recalling the manner in which Isaac Asimov had his superintelligent Robots resolve to withdraw from human contact in order to allow humanity to achieve its full potential (and, not incidentally, to connect his Robot series to his Foundation series). However, for contemporary audiences inured to Hollywood's now-preferred, morally black-and-white melodramas of noble heroes opposing despicable villains, the film's persistent ambiguity regarding the virtues of Caster's actions was surely unsettling, perhaps explaining why it proved a box-office disappointment. [GW]


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