Monday, April 28, 2014

Transcending the Mundane

I am sorry Transcendence, but you seem doomed to be ridiculed and scorned, because I liked you. My favourite films of the past two years all suffered the same fate. Last year it was Oblivion, the year before Prometheus. The year before that Rise of the Planet of the Apes was ignored by most science-fiction viewers. I liked them all because they gave me plenty to think about. I am sick and tired of science-fiction films that are instantly forgotten the moment you leave the cinema, like the Iron Man and Star Trek franchises, and all those science-fiction movies that I have seen and forgotten.

I liked Prometheus, Rise of the Planet of the Apes and Oblivion because they all tried to explore ideas, rather than just explore special effects.

Why I liked Transcendence. 

There are two main reasons that I liked Transcendence. First is its ambiguity: the story deliberately left many of its questions open to interpretation. The second reason I liked Transcendence is that it is the first film I can recall that seriously tries to tackle the Technological Singularity or Spike as I prefer to call it.

Spiked Transcendent Ambiguity.

To clear up any ambiguity about the ambiguity and the Spike in Transcendence, I am going to have to reveal a bit of its plot. Two scientists, Will and Evelyn Caster, are working on an artificially intelligent computer. They hope to create a sentient machine that thinks for itself. But Will is shot by some terrorists and is dying, so Evelyn decides to upload his brain into the AI’s memory coils, where the upload comes to life as a virtual avatar.

One of the main hopes of scientists working on artificial intelligence is that once machines reach the intelligence of humans their intelligence should quickly exceed that of humans, and then, under the AI’s guidance, technological advancements will speed up drastically, causing a Spike in human advancement. Humans will change massively. Post-spike humans could quickly advance to a near immortal God-like existence. The key technology in the Spike seems to be artificial technology that has the ability to create and advance technologies like nanotechnology and virtual reality.

When Will is uploaded into the computer ambiguity starts creeping into the movie. It is unclear whether the uploaded version of Will is the sum of what he was as a human, or are parts missing? Is he a mixture of his human self and Evelyn’s ethics as she was the one who wrote the code to upload him into the computer?

Will’s/the Ai’s intelligence quickly grows. Will/the AI perfects and controls nanomachines that cure blindness and revive the recently killed. But there is a hitch, he/it also includes a link to his/its mind in those he heals. So another question of ambiguity comes in, does he/it plan to control humanity or help it?

The movie is told from the point of view of those who interact with the AI/Will, which allows the question of the AI’s/Will’s benevolence to continue for the entire film. The audience is never taken into its/his mind to find out what his/its intentions are. He is attacked and uses the linked humans to defend himself. It has the ability to create technology that could wipe out humanity, but doesn’t. Instead it/he creates technology to link all humanity, but for what purpose, to help or control?

If you dislike movies that don’t tell you the answers to the questions it raises, you are not going to like Transcendence. You will probably think it full of plot holes that made it hard to understand and react by calling it “silly” like one pathetic reviewer did for the Murdoch press. But then he works for Murdoch so has no need to think.

The film’s big theme is will we be slaves to technology or will it liberate us? A guy sitting two seats down from me at the cinema who left his seat three times to use his mobile phone, might think the former. I am hopeful that it is the latter.

Transcendence is a science-fiction film that got me thinking, for that I am thankful. I do hope that others appreciate it too, so we can see more films that explore science and ideas, and not just Battleship your brain. But alas, I think most people who went to see Transcendence were hoping the AI did a Skynet so they could watch heaps of explosions and chase scenes.  

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