A Mind Set Free:
In John Boorman’s brilliant 1972 survivalist drama Deliverance there is a short scene which had a profound effect on me as a young man. Lewis, the macho character played superbly by Burt Reynolds, is lecturing his more civilized companions on his belief that we had better learn how to survive without technology because ‘systems will fail’. One of his friends implies that he seems to be looking forward to that day; and if I recall correctly Lewis just gives a bit of a smirk.
Of course, this was in the days long before mobile phones and websites. In terms of technology it was a very innocent time, one that anyone under forty would have trouble recognizing. Yet I instinctively felt then that Lewis was right, that systems would eventually fail; and all these years on I still think that is going to happen. Whether or not I look forward to it or not tends to depend on how old I’m feeling that day.
As Transcendence begins we see a world where the systems have indeed shut down. Wally Pfister, Christopher Nolan’s usual cinematographer in his directorial debut, shows us this with a few deft touches: a discarded cell phone; a shop sign warning that they have no dairy products or petrol; and most tellingly, the keyboard of a laptop being used to wedge a door open, being good for little else now.
From here we go back five years to see how this technological apocalypse has come about and are introduced to Dr Will Caster (Johnny Depp). Despite the fact that he prefers his music played on vinyl, Caster is working at the very cutting edge of things with his wife Evelyn (Rebecca Hall), on creating a sentient computer. And I intentionally use ‘creating’ rather than ‘building’. There is a touch of the religious to Caster’s work. His concerns cover not only artificial intelligence but whether this will open up questions (which of course it will) about the soul and even where that hypothetical soul resides. The elevation of a computer from a mere tool into a thinking being is what Will describes as ‘transcendence’.
His enthusiasm, however, is not shared by Bree (Kate Mara) and her terrorist organisation R.I.F.T.—‘Revolutionary Independence from Technology’. In one well co-ordinated moment of terror they murder several A.I. scientists (using their own technology) and effectively assassinate Caster himself by giving him radiation poisoning.
I’ve often wondered about these extremist groups like the far end of the Animal Rights Movement, for example; and before his death Will pretty much sums up my feelings when he discusses RIFT:
“It just doesn’t make sense. They’re afraid of technology because it’s a threat to humanity. Yet they don’t flinch at taking a human life. So obviously they’re not big on logic but there’s no shortage of irony.”
Working with Caster’s friend and colleague Max (Paul Bettany), Evelyn uses her husband’s own science to download his mind and effectively ‘evolve’ him to another level—in fact, to give him ‘transcendence’. As the new Will demands more and more power, however, Max has his doubts on just how much—if any—of Will’s real self has survived.
I find this an utterly fascinating film. I can’t understand the lackluster critical and audience reaction it has received. There is so much to see here. It is not an actors’ film, mind you, but rather one of ideas, courtesy of screenwriter Jack Paglem. It’s great to see Depp taking a serious role again, after having coasted for a while and enjoying dressing up as vampires and what have you; but of course he could also do this one in his sleep. Still, it has whetted my appetite for his next outing as Whitey Bulger in the soon-to-be released Black Mass.
Cillian Murphy as an F.B.I agent and Morgan Freeman as a fellow scientist are also pretty much on automatic pilot; but Rebecca Hall is in good form as the believing wife. And Paul Bettany completely steals any scene he appears in as Max, who doubts from the first and who finds himself turned by RIFT. It is a pleasure to watch the range of emotions that cross his face. And it is Max who muses on one of the central themes: “Maybe it was all inevitable: an unavoidable collision between Mankind and Technology.”
In the dawn of a more advanced age, will there be room for us?
I’ve heard this film being compared unfavorably to the early ‘70s movies The Forbin Project and Demon Seed, which both dealt with a similar theme; but whilst I remember those films as being excellent at the time it is too long ago for me to chance a comparison here. I will say, however, that Transcendence doesn’t compare to the Welsh SF movie The Machine from earlier this year, despite the latter film only having literally one per cent of the budget.
For me, though, it has been an unexpected pleasure. I’ve now seen it twice, getting even more from it the second time around.
And I fully intend to see it a third time.
Before the systems fail.
Transcendence boasts a rather lovely soundtrack by Mychael Denna and, if you stay through the end credits, you’ll hear it segue into a wonderful acoustic song called ‘Genesis’ from someone by the name of Jorma Kaukonen. (And the words suit the movie.) I’m not familiar with him but he reminded me of Cat Stevens before he lost the plot and converted to his so-called religion. Here it is: