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Review: Transcendence — The Soul Meets the Singularity

In Part 1 of my review of the 2014 classic, we start with the question: Can a human mind be completely transferred to a computer?
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Since Johnny Depp has been all over the news lately, this would be a great time to review his contribution to the world of sci-fi, Transcendence (2014), or as I like to call it, “Oh Great. Now, We Have to Kill the Internet.”

The movie plays on two themes. First, there is the idea that futurist Ray Kurzweil calls the Singularity, a moment where AI surpasses humanity. Second, the movie explores two closely related questions: Is there a soul, and does this soul reside within the brain?

Johnny Depp’s character, Will Caster, does not believe in the soul, but he does recognize that there is some unmapped region within biological life that allows a human to distinguish between right and wrong. This aspect of the brain prevents humanity from building more advanced AI. His solution to the problem is to experiment with the concept of uploading brains onto a computer he calls PINN (Physically Independent Neural Network). He does this with a monkey first; however, he keeps the experiment quiet.

Then, while speaking at a conference, he is shot by a member of the terrorist organization RIFT (Revolutionary Independence From Technology). The bullet has been laced with a radioactive element that poisons his blood with radiation. He is left with only a month to live. Will is resigned to his fate but his wife and co-researcher, Evelyn Caster, discovers his research with the monkey and decides to try the same experiment on him. Will’s friend, Max Waters, hears Evelyn’s plan and reluctantly agrees to help. Over the course of the next month, they upload the information inside Will’s brain onto PINN’s hard drive.

They have no trouble uploading Will’s brain into the computer, but they have a great deal of trouble translating his mind’s code. When Will dies, they continue to work on the experiment, but with little progress. Eventually, Evelyn is on the verge of giving up, but just as they are about to wipe PINN’s hard drive, a message appears on the screen. It’s Will.

Evelyn is overjoyed and begins to work on improving Will’s somewhat fragmented mind; however, once Will is awake, he takes over the experiment and begins to fix himself.

Max has been somewhat quiet about all of this, but when Will begins wanting to link into the internet so he can access everything, Max has had enough. He tells Evelyn that this thing inside the machine is not Will. It may have his memories and basic information, but whatever made Will human is gone. Evelyn will have none of this and tells Max to leave.

Conveniently, RIFT has been working in the shadows this entire time. They find Max chilling out at a bar and kidnap him.

A strong point of this film is that, while RIFT is not necessarily presented as a positive force in the story, the group’s motivations are easy to understand. The leader is a former student of Will Caster. She was present when he did the experiment with the monkey. Later in the film, she tells Max that the moment she heard the monkey over PINN’s speaker, it simply screamed without ceasing. They monkey was begging them to turn it off. This was what caused her to form the terrorist organization in the first place.

Transcendence does a good job presenting everyone’s view on whether it’s possible to upload a man into a machine and all their actions remain in character. The only character whose motives are in question, is Will — and we don’t get our answer until the end of the film.
This ambiguity creates an element of horror that works rather well. The tension between Evelyn and Will, as she begins to wonder whether this computer really is her husband, gives the viewer a sense of unease.

Eventually, RIFT finds Evelyn and attempt to capture her. In a moment of desperation, she uploads Will onto the internet and escapes. Will calls her on her cell phone as she is driving away. Using the Internet, of course, he floods her bank account with money and reserves her a hotel room. At the same time, he gives the FBI all the information they could ever need on RIFT who must then flee to a militia group somewhere far away from civilization. Will eventually leads Evelyn to the small desert town of Brightwood where he plans to have her build him a facility.

Evelyn follows his orders and the facility is soon built. Will has enough power to do a plethora of experiments. That plays into one of Max’s warnings earlier in the movie — that the computer will be motivated only by a perpetual expansion of its own power and knowledge.

Before we move on to the climax, one issue with the film does need to be mentioned. Because of its grand scope and timeline, Transcendence feels choppy at certain points. A number of pieces must be moving for new alliances to be formed, literal armies to be raised, government to intervene, and a multi-billion-dollar lab to be constructed, but less than thirty seconds are often devoted to these individual plot developments. One moment, RIFT has been utterly decimated and forced to flee into the forest — and the next, they have fresh troops and the equipment needed to practically lay a siege. The only sense of the passage of time in the film that we get is a caption which tells the viewer how many years have passed since the previous scene.

This isn’t a plot hole so much as it is a trade-off. On the one hand, the logistics are not really that interesting, and strictly speaking, a detailed explanation isn’t essential. On the other hand, these logistics are used to build the viewers’ emotional stake in the story. So, it’s a matter of pacing versus tension. The writers chose to prioritize pacing over building tension which, again, isn’t really a bad thing but it tends to give the viewer whiplash at certain points.

Here’s Part 2 of the review: Transcendence Review, Part 2: Spoonful of Water with the Nanotech When Will — now an AI — “possesses” a tradesman so that he can touch his wife Evelyn again, Evelyn begins to have second thoughts… Transcendence (2014) remains good viewing even though it too often sacrifices tension to pacing: We don’t mind seeing characters worry a bit sometimes.

You may also wish to read: Is Ray Kurzweil’s Singularity nearer or still impossible? AI might help us unlock our potential, a panel concludes, but it won’t take over. Oren Etzioni of the Allen Institute for AI warns, don’t mistake a clear view for a short distance. What’s easy to envision may be intrinsically impossible.

Gary Varner

Gary Varner is the Assistant to the Managing and Associate Directors at the Center for Science & Culture in Seattle, Washington. He is a Science Fiction and Fantasy enthusiast with a bachelor’s degree in Theater Arts, and he spends his time working with his fellows at Discovery Institute and raising his daughter who he suspects will one day be president of the United States. For more reviews as well as serial novels, go to www.garypaulvarner.com to read more.

Review: Transcendence — The Soul Meets the Singularity