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The Colossus of Northern California: A Review of Transcendence

by Gary Westfahl

One of the quirks of renowned magazine editor John W. Campbell, Jr. was his fondness for story titles consisting of a single abstract noun, as illustrated by classics like Isaac Asimov’s “Reason” (1941) and Clifford D. Simak’s “Desertion” (1944) and obscurities like Norman Spinrad’s “Subjectivity” (1964) and Joseph P. Martino’s “Persistence” (1969). He probably believed that such titles imbued his publications with an evocative aura of profundity and maturity that contrasted favorably with those of his less dignified competitors. Contemporary filmmakers are apparently growing fond of the same device to convey that their science fiction blockbusters – unlike, say, the latest installment in the Transformers series – are designed for thoughtful, intelligent viewers, as illustrated by three films I recently reviewed: Inception, Oblivion, and Gravity. Now we are given Transcendence, a film effectively announcing that it is offering deep insights into the innate, universal drive to transcend the human condition and confront the Other. And it doesn’t, and it does; the film ultimately cannot say anything that is genuinely revelatory about the subject, but that inability is in itself revelatory.

For anyone glancing at this review before rushing off to the theatre, I can quickly say that Transcendence passed the Westfahl test for successful entertainment – I never looked at my watch – and it could be briefly described as a polished redaction of a familiar science fiction trope, the harmful results of separating the human mind from the human body. This venerable cautionary tale is founded on assumptions about human nature that are at best medieval: the brain provides our reasoning ability, while the body is the source of our emotions. If the brain is removed from the body, the mind becomes cold and cruel, obsessed with controlling and dominating the human beings it no longer cares about. However, even as they progress inexorably toward their necessary conclusion – the death of the menacing brain – these stories sometimes contradict their own premises by having the mind reveal, at the very last minute, that it has actually retained a vestige of its original human warmth. And since emotions are in fact integral to human thinking, it does seem more logical to posit that a brain in a jar, or a downloaded human personality, would be just as emotional as anyone else, but that realization would only spoil some good horror stories.

Amidst innumerable precursors along these lines, one might mention Edmond Hamilton’s “The Man Who Evolved” (1931) or the various film versions of Curt Siodmak’s Donovan’s Brain (1942), but the film that most resembles Transcendence is Eugène Lourié’s The Colossus of New York (1958). Both films have the same basic plot: a renowned and admired scientist is dying prematurely; to preserve his valuable intellect, colleagues download his intellect into a machine; the transformed scientist starts to seem less and less human, as friends and family members gradually and sadly recognize that he has become an enemy they must oppose; but right before his death, he demonstrates that, deep down, he had really remained the same lovable guy we observed in the opening scenes. Granted, the mind of the earlier film’s scientist is downloaded in the crudest possible manner – his brain is transplanted into the body of an immense robot – and there are other differences that reflect changing times: like everyone else in 1950s popular culture, Ross Martin’s Dr. Jeremy Spensser is a family man, with a wife and son, but Johnny Depp’s Dr. Will Caster and his wife Evelyn (Rebecca Hall) are childless; and though all the scientists in The Colossus of New York are white men, Evelyn is a brilliant scientist herself, and the Casters’ mentor, computer scientist Dr. Joseph Tagger, is played by the African-American Morgan Freeman (who seems to be becoming Hollywood’s go-to guy for characters who must be regarded as wise and avuncular even if there is nothing in the script to convey those qualities). Still, the parallels between the films are striking, and while I have no idea if anyone involved in Transcendence was familiar with Lourié’s underrated film, Depp’s performance might be regarded as his attempt to replicate Martin’s relaxed, self-effacing persona.

Yet one must not overlook the most significant difference between Transcendence and earlier films: while disembodied brains in official and unofficial adaptations of Donovan’s Brain routinely grow larger and develop telepathic powers, and while Spensser’s robotic body gives him enormous strength and the ability to emit deadly beams from his eyes, these beings are only slightly superhuman, and defeating them may be a simple matter of dodging energy blasts from the crazed brain in the jar until one can pull the plug of the machine keeping him alive. Caster’s mind, downloaded into a supercomputer and connected to the internet, rapidly expands exponentially, granting him intelligence that is vastly greater than any human’s; and now ubiquitous and equipped with amazing new technologies, he appears to have become omniscient, omnipotent, immortal, and invulnerable. He thus embodies the original goal of Caster’s research: to create an artificial intelligence that is smarter than we are. In an early speech, he references Vernor Vinge’s term for this anticipated development – the singularity – but renames this achievement “transcendence,” presumably for the benefit of denser members of the audience unable to figure out what the film’s title means. In this way, the film addresses another topic that has long fascinated science fiction writers: the nature and attributes of beings who are more advanced than humans. And like the others who have explored this possibility, prominently including Olaf Stapledon and Arthur C. Clarke, screenwriter Jack Paglen finds that the task is impossible.

Vinge has articulated the basic problem: since we do not have superhuman intelligence ourselves, we necessarily have no idea what a superhuman intelligence might do or think. The only tool we have is to consider human behavior in contrast to the behavior of vastly less intelligent animals, and imagine the behavior of creatures who would consider humans vastly less intelligent, but such analogies don’t take us very far. People have hunted and killed animals for food, and we have domesticated a few animals to serve as laborers and companions, but we otherwise have paid little attention to animals, primarily devoting ourselves to innumerable human activities – card games, operas, calculus – that animals would find incomprehensible. Similarly, we can assume, superhuman beings might occasionally interact with humans when they found it helpful, but they would otherwise go away to spend the vast majority of their time in the company of other superhumans, engaged in innumerable superhuman activities that would be incomprehensible to us and hence activities that we cannot possibly predict. This is the way that Clarke’s Childhood’s End (1953) ends, and to speak of a superbeing that more closely resembles the transformed Caster, this is also the way that William Gibson’s Neuromancer (1984) ends, as the combined artificial intelligence Wintermute/Neuromancer starts to communicate with its counterparts in other solar systems and has seemingly lost interest in the human race.

But people want stories about people, so science fiction stories about superhumans, if they extend beyond their birth, must depict superhumans as beings obsessed with people and their problems, which also conveniently allows authors to avoid talking about their other, genuinely superhuman interests. Thus, endeavoring to extend another story with a cosmic conclusion, the novel and film 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), Clarke refashioned the superhuman Star Child in the novel’s sequels into a mere errand boy for unseen aliens who remain focused on meddling in human affairs; and in the sequels to Neuromancer, Gibson explained that Wintermute/Neuromancer actually went crazy after contacting an alien artificial intelligence and split itself into separate entities who took on the names of voodoo gods and, yes, started meddling in human affairs. Stories like Transcendence depict advanced intelligences as entirely focused on ordinary people from the very start, dedicated to either helping them out or, more often, to killing and oppressing them. Again, we can’t confidently say anything about possible superhuman behavior, but these anticipated proclivities don’t appear to be sensible, since very few people, upon achieving maturity, declare, “I want to devote my life to improving the lives of animals,” or “I want to devote my life to killing, and controlling the lives of, animals.” Yet these are the priorities that the superbeings of science fiction routinely announce; to humans, they must either be gods (and one of Caster’s opponents accuses him of wanting to “create a god”) or devils.

What makes Transcendence interesting is that some aspects of Caster’s behavior seem beneficial, while other aspects seem harmful, in ways that naturally reflect contemporary concerns. In the 1950s, it was logical that The Colossus of New York’s saintly Spensser would dedicate himself to increasing the world’s food supply to achieve world peace, while his robotic doppelgänger seeks to take over the world in the manner of the then-feared Communists. The modern Caster, once downloaded, first seeks to provide people with free and unfailingly effective health care, in a manner not unlike the similarly desirable health care in the future world of Elysium; and it later transpires that he is an environmentalist as well, hoping to restore the natural world to its pristine, preindustrial state. It is therefore appropriate that Caster and his wife are apparently residents of northern California’s Silicon Valley, residing close to the University of California’s Lawrence Livermore Laboratory, and that Bree (Kate Mara) and other anti-technological terrorists hide out in the Sierra Nevada mountains of northern California, since a deep affection and respect for nature has long characterized what David Pringle has described as Californian science fiction, represented by authors like George R. Stewart and Kim Stanley Robinson. What people don’t like about the computerized Caster is his interest in monitoring all of their actions: when his machines heal patients, they also implant a device that enables Caster to connect to and control them, and what finally infuriates Evelyn and turns her against Caster is the discovery that he is constantly keeping track of her biometric data and thus can detect, for example, that she is growing fearful of him. Thus, while Caster offers the world his own versions of Obamacare and the Environmental Protection Act, he also represents the ultimate extension of the National Security Agency and everything that people dislike about it.

Most films resist ambiguity and hence would eventually depict a being like Caster as either completely good or completely evil; yet Transcendence singularly refuses to resolve the issue. Some sympathetic characters, like Tagger and FBI agent Buchanan (Cillian Murphy), are quickly convinced that he is a power-mad, would-be global dictator seeking to enslave the human race to achieve his own evil ends. Other sympathetic characters, like Evelyn and the scientists in her employ, appear confident that his actions are designed to improve, and will improve, the human condition. To be sure, director Wally Pfister seeks to make his audience feel certain ways at certain times. If you are not sure that your emotions are being properly manipulated, keep an eye on Evelyn’s hair: when she is wearing it in a bun, she is hard at work fulfilling Caster’s requests and we are supposed to sympathize with him; when she returns to her original hair style, that signals her growing mistrust of Caster, and we are now supposed to despise him. But the film allows viewers to resist this programming, as I continued to root for Caster even when everybody else in the film was fighting against him, while I suspect that others in the theatre thought Caster was a dirty rotten so-and-so from the beginning. Even the film’s conclusion – unusually revealed in the film’s opening scene – is ambiguous: as one consequence of Caster’s emergence, the world has reverted, at least temporarily, to a pre-technological state, as there is no electric power, phone system, or internet, and that definitely seems like a bad thing. Yet there is also a suggestion at the end that it may turn out to be a good thing as well.

One could describe the film’s uncertainty as an honest consequence of the genuine uncertainty we might feel if superhumans actually intervened in human affairs, as mere humans would be unable to discern the actual impact of their deeds; after all, when you take your cat to the veterinarian, the cat thinks that you’re tormenting her, when you are actually helping her. So, if people at the end of the film aren’t sure whether the world after Caster’s appearance is better or worse, that might simply mean that they will need several thousand years of thought and development before they can figure it all out. Yet one must also suspect, cynically, that the indeterminacy of the conclusion is designed to create the possibility of a sequel, something that must always be anticipated when a star like Depp appears in your picture. And a sequel to Transcendence would be remarkably easy to contrive; after all, when Caster learned that his opponents were planning to implant a virus in his disembodied intelligence and destroy him, surely his very first reaction would be to make a duplicate of himself and hide it in a place totally disconnected from the internet, so it could survive and revive itself later on. But would the new Caster be a hero or a villain? With the ending allowing for either possibility, the character of the sequel’s Caster could depend upon whether Depp agreed to appear in it. If he did, the reborn Caster could be the hero, perhaps coming to life again to help humanity deal with some devastating disaster, like an alien invasion. (I can hear the pitch now: “It’s Transcendence meets Transformers!”) If he didn’t, the new Caster could be a villain, represented by occasional footage from the first film, who comes back to be really nasty to humanity this time while audiences identify with some cheaper star hired to portray his chief human adversary. Both of these projected sequels, of course, would be dull variations on familiar visions – superhumans as gods, and superhumans as devils – but history suggests that these are the invariable outcomes of such stories, for authors cannot thoughtfully ponder the everyday lives of superhumans without being superhuman themselves.

Transcendence is also ambiguous regarding a key question in the field of artificial intelligence: can an advanced super-computer ever become genuinely self-aware? When Tagger puts the question to an earlier supercomputer, PINN (Physically Independent Neural Network), and later to Caster himself, both give an identical answer, demanding that Tagger himself prove that he is self-aware. This counts as a key clue that the downloaded Caster is, in fact, a computer simulation of a person, not a true person. Yet when Caster makes a hotel reservation for Evelyn after she flees from the terrorists, he tellingly uses the name “Turing,” referencing the Turing Test for computer self-awareness that he certainly seems to be passing with flying colors. Curiously, though the film’s credits list professors of electrical engineering and neuroscience as consultants, no one connected to the film, it seems, ever talked to a computer scientist. Still, director Pfister and writer Paglen – perhaps with more assistance from executive producer Christopher Nolan than was acknowledged – did manage to produce an intelligent, worthwhile film that merits serious attention and admiration, even though its unrealizable ambitions mean that it must also be classified as a failure.

Gary Westfahl’s 24 books include the Hugo-nominated Science Fiction Quotations: From the Inner Mind to the Outer Limits (2005) and the three-volume Greenwood Encyclopedia of Science Fiction and Fantasy (2005); samples from these and his other works are available at his World of Westfahl website. His recent books include two books on science fiction films, The Spacesuit Film: A History, 1918-1969 (2012) and A Sense-of-Wonderful Century: Explorations of Science Fiction and Fantasy Films (2012), and a contribution to the University of Illinois Press’s Modern Masters of Science Fiction series, William Gibson (2013).


Comment from stevenjohnson
Time April 20, 2014 at 5:28 am

The movie is about a love triangle, not just dramatized essay on cognitive science. But insofar as it is about scientific speculation, it’s weakness is not its version of the Singularity, but it’s treatment of nanotech. The movie is unaware of any issues regarding materials shortages, waste heat, bandwidth, memory storage and systems control. It treats nanotech like magic, which notwithstanding the peculiar folks who think it’s all the same, is a weakness in SF.

In the love triangle story, Depp’s character is remarkably consistent in many ways. But the uploading process is essentially complete before the physical death of Caster. The viewer is allowed to miss this since the revelation of the uploaded Caster comes afterwards. Misdirection of the audience or misunderstanding by the writer? Evelyn is the character who makes the dramatic choice at the climax. Rebecca Hall does very well I thought.

But where Transcendence really does run into dramatic problems grave enough to threaten the thematic coherence of the movie, is its treatment of the third leg of the triangle, Paul Bettany’s Max Waters. I’d even have to say that if you weren’t paying attention to Max, you weren’t seeing the movie. Thus the very peculiar plot events Max takes part in are possibly a fatal flaw.

Or, to put it another way, is it really likely that a man so unloved he could disappear for two years without anyone apparently noticing, could even be an intimate friend of the Casters?

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