starring Johnny Depp, Paul Bettany, Morgan Freeman, Kate Mara and Rebecca Hall
written by Jack Paglen
directed by Wally Pfister
It’s Tron (1982) all over again. Artificial Intelligence. A scientist is united with a computer program and through it with the entire internet. He learns exponentially and soon achieves self-consciousness and evolves into an artificially intelligent new life form. In Tron it was an accident whereby Jeff Bridges enters a computer mainframe where he interacts with various computer programs in his quest to escape back to the real world. In Transcendence John Depp is an AI researcher who, together with his wife inhabits the cutting edge of AI theory, technology, and related nanotechnology. Johnny is attacked and shot by a neo-luddite eco-terrorist. Even though he survives the bullet the bullet was poisoned with plutonium, so now he has radiation poisoning and will eventually die prematurely anyway. His wife pursues the plan of loading his brain patterns into a computer in the desperate hope of preserving some part of him. And it works. But once the scientist is in the machine and inhabiting the Internet he grows beyond the entire accumulation of human knowledge as “transcends” to become a new life form. The problem is that the technology was used to preserve him but now that he is in the machine how can we know how much is him and how much is a soul-less machine imitating him, or using his recorded face and voice to manipulate humans? That is the fear that fuels these kinds of body-snatcher movies.
People are afraid of novelty at first. But once they see what technology can do they embrace it and set the stage for lives to be changed. We see this happening all around us: electric lights; telephone; automobile; radio; television; pinball games; home video games; video tape movies and home video cameras; desk top computers; lap top computers; tablet computers; cell phones; E-mail; the Internet; dial-up connection; broad-band connection; Skype; universal Wi-Fi; hand held smart phone sets, and on and on.
In the horror movies or horror science fiction the invading, body-snatching aliens always say “I don`t think you understand” as if understanding the benefits of their regime will make humans see the rational light and naturally accept their fate. The thing is that people do not misunderstand. They understand perfectly. They just don’t agree is all.
Soon people become enhanced, modified and networked. People remain autonomous but they can also act in unison, as part of a collective mind. Like Star Trek`s greatest adversary, the notorious Borg.
Using nanotechnology the new life form AI learns to manipulate matter, to create things artificially from scratch, to repair human injuries, to miraculously cure disease and disability, to create a new body for the scientist to inhabit. He says to his startled wife, “I found a way back.” Enhancement and augmentation blur the line between humanity and machine so much that it becomes impossible to know what is traditionally ‘real’ anymore, and you know there has to be a cataclysmic showdown. The motivating fear is that the AI life form must seek the end of primitive organic life and the dawn of a more advanced age where everything will exist just to serve its intelligence.
Before the AI can take over the world it has to be stopped, and he only way to stop it is to shut down the Internet, to cut power to every networked hard drive on earth. It`s Y2K. Remember at the turn of the millennium when some people thought that the triple zeroes in the year 2000 might cause computers to shut down and plunge the world into the Dark Ages? No electric power. No navigation. No machines of any kind. Mass death.
The Internet is shut down by cutting power. That’s how the movie opens, on a world of no electric power and no computers. Then Paul Bettany tells the story as a flashback. When I saw Paul Bettany I knew it was going to be a good movie. Until then I couldn’t tell just by looking at the pictures on the DVD case. Johnny Depp movies range from the fantastically great to the insufferably weird. This one was great. It brims with a lot of science and science fiction concepts well worth considering.