MRR Review: "Transcendence"

Photo Credit: Warner Bros.

Rating: PG-13
Length: 119 minutes
Release Date: April 17, 2014
Directed by: Wally Pfister
Genre: Drama / Mystery / Sci-Fi

The movie "Transcendence" is one of the more anticipated science fiction movies of the year. It brings the theme of transhumanism to the forefront of society in a way that few other movies currently do. "Transcendence" is an exploration of what could happen when a human being interfaces with the vastness of the Internet and becomes something much more than human.


"Transcendence" starts out looking at artificial intelligence researcher Dr. Will Caster and his dream to transcend human limitations by creating sentient machines that combine the sum total of human knowledge with the ability to feel all of the emotions of humans. Dr. Caster has become famous as a result of his experiments in the field and because of the frequent talks he gives. Unfortunately, he is a target of anti-tech zealots. In the early part of the movie, anti-tech extremists shoot Dr. Caster with radiation-tainted bullets. They do this so that even if the bullets themselves fail to kill Dr. Caster, the radiation still has the ability to finish him off. Since the death of his human body seems inevitable after his poisoning, Dr. Caster decides to combine his consciousness with technology to transcend it and survive his death. Caster's wife Evelyn and his best friend Max Waters are worried about this approach, but it quickly becomes the only option for Caster's survival. Caster's friends help him download his consciousness into a computer, freeing him from the inevitability of his own death. At that point, Dr. Caster's strong drive to understand the world turns into a drive to control it. As a mind free from a body and contained in a computer system, Dr. Caster quickly begins infecting the computer systems of the world, and people begin to fear that there is no way to stop Caster in his quest to gain power and conquer the unknown.

Analysis and Implications

Johnny Depp stars in "Transcendence." His involvement with the project started in 2012. Depp's Caster is a bit of an egomaniac, which is obviously important to the plot since it needs to be believable that Caster would decide that only he is able to fix the world and solve mysteries, regardless of the cost. One of the fundamental ideas behind movies like "Transcendence" is the question that looks at how moving away from a human body might affect a person. After all, running a mind from a computer is a totally different medium than running it from a normal organic human brain. The implication is that human minds running on computers would be in danger of losing their morality and regular human sensibilities. While this is all highly theoretical, the movie certainly brings up a lot of fears people have felt about new technology for some time.

"Transcendence" has a similar vibe as the "Terminator" series in that both delve into potential threats to humanity from artificial intelligence. The ironic thing about "Transcendence" is that it is the plot of anti-technology terrorists that causes the threat from technology. This makes "Transcendence" a bit more sophisticated in its approach, since it imagines the threat of alien intelligence as coming from humans and not from separate artificial intelligence created by humans. This is a relatively recent development in popular thought. The idea of transhumanism has been around for a while, but mostly in the background. The significance of "Transcendence" is that it is a major motion picture with an international distribution plan and extremely popular actors, such as Johnny Depp and Paul Bettany, that looks at the merger between man and computer directly. The movie even uses words from the transhumanism movement, such as "singularity." Movies about man and machine mergers in the last few decades did not use this terminology.

"Transcendence" addresses the possibility of a runaway artificial intelligence, or a "singularity," in a much more modern way. That said, the film is still clearly on the critical side of the spectrum when viewing the possibilities of transcending the human form. Many science fiction stories actually go the other way, showing transcendence and artificial intelligence as potentially positive things due to what they give to humanity. The idea is that beings without bodies might actually act more morally due to freedom from human impulses.

Overall, "Transcendence" is shaping up to be an important film. The movie might surprise people, especially those who have not considered this type of possibility before. The film is the start of a new conversation that could help decide the course humans take in real life.