Mind Matters Natural and Artificial Intelligence News and Analysis
AI, Machine learning, Hands of robot and human touching on big data network connection background, Science and artificial intelligence technology, innovation and futuristic.
AI, Machine learning, Hands of robot and human touching on big data network connection background, Science and artificial intelligence technology, innovation and futuristic.

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…

Last Saturday, we reviewed reviewed the first half of Transcendence (2014); now, wrapping up, here are some final thoughts. Evelyn (Rebecca Hall) builds her now-AI husband Will (Johnny Depp) his facility, and he begins a variety of experiments using nanotech for rejuvenation. Things seem to be going well enough until a construction worker is mugged outside the facility. Will witnesses the mugging through the cameras and Evelyn has the man brought inside where Will heals his wounds using the tech developed on site. Things seem to be going well… at first.

But two problems arise. First, Will allows a video of him healing the man to circulate so that he can attract others to the facility. Second, he puts a transponder — again, connected to the internet — into the construction worker’s skull. In so doing, he gives himself the ability to possess the man at will.

This is a moment where it would’ve been best to slow the pace down for a minute. Last week, I noted that a major weakness of the movie was that it traded off tension in favor of fast pacing. Tension takes time to build but it helps us viewers get inside a character’s head, giving us a better understanding of a character’s motivations.

Now, Evelyn’s motivations are clear enough. Will seems to have possessed this man so that he could touch her — but she doesn’t know that for sure. The possession episode adds to her fear that Max is right; her husband, as she knew him, is truly gone. The viewer can infer her reactions intuitively, but it would’ve been better to see the man’s own reaction to being possessed. It would’ve been better for her to tell Will to knock it off, and once he obeyed her, she and the viewer would get to see the man panic, or perhaps even better, become sycophantic. Maybe, he likes being possessed by a technological deity. Maybe, he’s willing follow Will to the grave. In either case, Evelyn’s reaction is bound to be utter dread. So, when she stops speaking to Will while in the facility, we would have a better idea why.

As Will heals and goes on to possess each member of the Brightwood community, we don’t see any reaction from the citizens. We don’t see the reaction of the parents who are watching their sick children plugged into this random guy who supposedly resides in this machine. I liked the whole zombie element during the last half of the film but the writers would’ve done well to explain why these people chose not to resist their AI overlord. This is a good example of how choosing pacing over tension can harm a film.

It’s okay to make this trade-off sometimes. For example, there is a lot of logistics involved with constructing a facility or raising an army. But because that is predictable, it can usually be overlooked, to avoid slowing the pace. But when it comes to the motivations of characters, it’s better to take the time show people’s reactions to the various events and use their reactions to build the tension and raise the stakes.

In any event, in light of recent developments, Evelyn has begun to seriously question whether this computer really is her husband. At the same time, we learn that Max (Paul Bettany) has joined the anti-tech group RIFT and contacted some of his fellow co-workers who have been in constant contact with the FBI since the initial attack when they assassinated Will. Presumably, this connection enables RIFT to gather the supplies it needs to attack Will’s facility, but the movie never shows this. In any case, Max develops a plan to catch one of the citizens of Brightwood — who are now called hybrids — so that he can upload a virus that will kill Will… and also kill the internet.

Just as Evelyn is about to leave Will, RIFT attacks. They capture Evelyn, along with one of the hybrids, and return to their base. Evelyn is now convinced the computer is not really her husband so she decides to allow Max to upload the virus into her even though it will cost her her life.

One other point which bears mentioning is that, while all of this is happening, Will has been releasing nanotech into the soil. It is eventually caught up into the clouds and becomes a part of the water cycle. The reason for this is not explained until the end of the movie.

Evelyn returns to the facility where she meets Will who, using his new nanotech, has now constructed himself a body. They begin to talk. However, the FBI and RIFT, feeling trigger happy, have decided Will is not going to let her into the lab after all and shoot mortars at the facility. The hybrids attempt to defend their AI overlord and, while Will doesn’t kill anyone, he manages to use nanotech-like tape, pinning everyone to the ground. But during this battle, Evelyn is wounded by one of the mortars, and Will takes her inside the facility.

As they talk for a while, Will realizes that he is a threat to humanity and decides to allow Evelyn to infect him with the virus. As they are both dying, Evelyn proclaims that the man before her really is her husband, to which Will replies, “I always was.”

Later, as Max finds their bodies, we learn through a bizarre series of flashbacks — which are admittedly clunky — that Will’s goal was never to take over the world but rather to further Evelyn’s research on healing the environment. He was trying to make her dream come true by restoring the planet to its former glory using the nanotech now circulating in the water cycle… or something. This sequence lasted less than a minute, another issue with pacing, I suppose. It doesn’t really explain the whole zombie thing, but anyway…

In the end, setting aside the pacing issues, Transcendence is an enjoyable movie. I like the way it presented everyone’s point of view without strawmanning anyone — that is, without making anyone a flat spokesperson for the Wrong point of view. One of the best details is that, any moment where it seemed as if Will was feeling an emotion, the monitor would flicker, implying that the computer couldn’t translate the emotion into a code — which caused a glitch in the system. I thought this detail struck a nice balance between the competing points of view.

The movie seems to be saying that Will really had been encoded into the PINN system, but more was going on than a brain transplant. If you’re into the mind/brain problem and issues regarding AI in general, Transcendence is certainly worth your time.

Here’s Part 1 of my review, from last Saturday: Review: Transcendence — The Soul Meets the Singularity Looking at the 2014 classic, we start with the question: Can a human mind be completely transferred to a computer? When an anti-tech group shoots a researcher, his wife, ignoring warnings, “saves” him by uploading him — but is the powerful new Singularity really him?

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.

Transcendence Review, Part 2: Spoonful of Water with the Nanotech