Transcendence (2014)

*. Humankind, Nietzsche wrote, is something to be surpassed. This is an article of faith for today’s technophiles, who see the next stage of evolution (or its ultimate goal, in so far as it is dubbed the Singularity) to be a kind of secular rapture where we enter into the cloud and become as one with our technology.
*. Luc Besson’s Lucy (released the same year as Transcendence) took an optimistic view of this next stage in our destiny, and I think it’s one most of us would be happy with. I certainly have an easier time imagining Scarlett Johannson as God than I do Johnny Depp.
*. Transcendence may seem to take a darker tack, but I think it’s just less lively. It didn’t do well with critics, or audiences. I think perhaps because it’s not a lot of fun. It’s an effects film, but the story doesn’t develop a lot of tension. Aside from the main character, everybody else just basically gets to stand around looking slack-jawed in amazement at all the digital magic. Paul Bettany, Morgan Freeman (once again voicing the conscience of humanity), Kate Mara, and Cillian Murphy are just along for the ride.
*. Much as with Lucy, by simply waving a hand at reality you jettison a lot of interest. And at the end of the day, this is still a comic-book movie. Mark Kermode came to its defence, but then Kermode thought Inception brilliant and this is a movie very much in that mode (Wally Pfister shot Inception and Christopher Nolan was a producer on Transcendence).
*. Some people liked it because they thought it was “really about” something, but it isn’t a movie that has much in the way of deep philosophical speculation. What troubled me the most, however, was the message, which is also a lot less different from Lucy than it at first appears.
*. Because what is the message? Tech is man’s nature. So it is both natural and our destiny to use tech to become as gods (Will Crater figures this is axiomatic in his funding Q&A). Previous SF movies had a far darker vision of where this was going, or at least left it ambiguous. But in both Lucy and Transcendence the new and improved Skynet is only here to help, to make the world a better place. It will, of course, be all powerful and control every aspect of our lives, but tech will be a benevolent, omnipresent God. Much better than the brainless federal government or murderous technophobe terrorists.
*. In fact, Transcendence carries an even darker message, in that the only way for us to achieve our destiny (the Singularity) is through private capital. Evelyn’s stake (arranged through Will’s manipulation of the market, again for a good cause) will be the water that will make the desert bloom. Of course Will himself isn’t interested in money, but then he has so much of it (and can always make more anytime he wants) that it doesn’t matter. He can be the transcendent capitalist philanthropist. Is he Bill Gates? Jeff Bezos? Mark Zuckerberg? Who needs government any more when we have supermen like these who will clean the air and oceans and save the lives of millions just by a wave of their magic wands? So don’t be scared and just get out of their way! Resistance is not only futile, it’s evil.
*. Is that going too far? I don’t think so. It seems a fairly obvious surface reading of the story.
*. This is something very different than a vision of the meek inheriting the earth. The alternative value system such movies promote is hard to mistake. That it is all a wild fantasy, with reality portrayed as being infinitely plastic in the hands of the Master Builders, makes it worse. Technology can’t deliver on these promises, no matter how much of a free hand it’s given. Nevertheless, the imagineers of the film biz are so keen on pushing this myth — which is more a political myth than a vision of the future — that they continue to blast ahead.
*. In some ways, these movies share much in common with the zombie apocalypse genre. In those movies the message is that other people are just brain-dead, consuming animals that should be put out of their misery. In the superhero genre (from MarvelCrap to movies like Lucy and Transcendence) salvation is at hand in the form of Big Brother and CGI Jesus. Yes, the People are still just hordes of cattle, but they can be protected by homo superiors, or programmed into becoming man-machine “hybrids,” drones who will build the server farms of the future. They don’t call it the rapture of the nerds for nothing.

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