I’m always interested in silly wannabe blockbusters like Transcendence, not because I expect them to make sense, exactly, or even do a reasonable job at entertaining, but because I’m always interested in how the evolutionary future is being sold to the American public, and which anxieties are most prominently performed along the way. In that sense, Transcendence is a hot mess, as it should be. Trying to deliver Kurzweil’s warmed over enthusiasm about the nearness of the Singularity with Johnny Depp as the Singularity’s face is not going to reassure anyone that a land-grabbing Artificial Intelligence that turns humans into its own pod people is warm and fuzzy and human, even if it’s all for the sake of “healing the planet.” In the beginning, the film seems to want us to identify with the good-hearted AI researchers, Johnny and his wife, Rebecca Hall. We know that Johnny is a good guy, because he hates to do his performing monkey routine in order to get funding from corporate interests, because he just wants the freedom to do his research, and because he’s never taken any Defense Department dollars. Meanwhile, the unreasonable anti-technology terrorists are blowing up innocent scientists – scientists! They almost get Morgan Freeman, for God’s sake, and they hit poor Johnny with a radioactive bullet that gives him just a few months to live – just enough time for his wife to work out the necessary details to upload his consciousness into a super-computer.
The first problem is that Johnny Depp doesn’t seem human even when he’s playing one. Didn't we already see him as a much better and creepier thinly-disguised non-human intelligence in The Astronaut's Wife? It’s hard, even during the parts of the film in which we’re supposed to like Johnny Depp, to like Johnny Depp. If the sight of a monkey with electrodes on its head evokes the idea of all the primates we’ve tortured in our pursuit of better hair products, your sympathies will be complicated from the get-go. Almost immediately after the upload, Johnny merges seamlessly with financial markets and the surveillance state and gets those bad terrorists. Some of them, at least. But as Johnny begins to merge with the internet, with his workers, and with the rain itself through the new nanotech applications his super-smartness has whipped up, those terrorists begin to seem a little less crazy. Although it takes two years of dating a huge machine that never sleeps and is watching her all the time for his wife to get creeped out – it’s when he tries to make love with her through the body of one of his drone workers that it first occurs to her that maybe this has gone just a little too far – eventually she rebels against the idea that he can read her hormone levels and body chemistry to such a degree that she has no privacy, not even in her own mind. Maybe the merger of surveillance and powers that mimic telepathy is gonna be … icky and enslaving? Maybe designing a huge super-smart entity isn’t the best idea for life on earth, no matter what Ray Kurzweil believes. Hasn't anyone seen Demon Seed? Somewhere in its muddled middle, the film seems to suggest we should switch our allegiances, wants us to root for the new merger of the government forces and the terrorists, who are seeming less crazy and more sympathetic, trying to stop this thing, before it’s too late.
It’s difficult to create a science fiction scenario that Philip K Dick didn’t imagine with more complexity 40 years ago. Transcendence adds nothing new to his more nuanced thought about the dangers and repercussions of vast, megalomaniacal intelligences, (The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch, for example) except a “hopeful” ending. Finally, the film wants us to switch our allegiances one more time – the horror of what Johnny has become wasn’t really so horrible, it seems. He is still human, and still loves his wife more than anything. He really was healing the planet. It’s the marriage of sappy and unconvincing heterosexual love (again!) with the wonders of nanotech that can magically turn our gray skies blue and transform pollution into love. You just gotta believe.
If the coexistence of film noir and the Hollywood code has taught me anything, it’s that films aren’t essays and their pasted-on happy endings don’t negate what came before. The anti-human, anti-life possibilities of AI have been put on display, and it’s impossible to say that any anxieties about our rush to embrace the Singularity have been assuaged exactly. “One” is never a very fun evolutionary strategy. Of all the possible ways that evolution might proceed into the future, one huge, dominating ego -- a controlling male mother who is going to enslave us for our own good – is perhaps the least charming. Unless it has poutier lips? Off to the movies to see how Scarlett Johannsson works that one out in Lucy.