The Loss of Will

Wally Pfister’s film, Transcendence, starring Johnny Depp, is dark and beautiful, but also vague and confused.

MPAA Rating: PG-13
Reel Rating: (3 Reels out of 5)

is a dark, deep, and beautiful film from first-time director Wally Pfister that highlights his roots as one of Hollywood’s premier cinematographers (The Dark Knight, Inception, The Dark Knight Rises). There are reoccurring shots of water quietly dropping from leaves and nanobots slowly rising from the ground creating clouds of metal rain. It’s a feast for the eyes but, unfortunately, the script cannot match it. The film suffers from the burdening complexity that often plagues science fiction (I still can’t figure Primer out), yet the central message comes through: whenever man attempts to imitate God by creating something in his image, it will fail. It didn’t work in the Garden of Eden; it won’t work in Silicon Valley.

The film opens in the near future as a small group of scientists, including Dr. Will Caster (Johnny Depp), his wife Evelyn (Rebecca Hall), and their friend Max Waters (Paul Bettany), close in on creating the first artificial intelligence (AI) computer, called PINN. In a TED-like event, Will explains that eventually an AI will reach a point of singularity when it will be smarter than mankind’s collective knowledge. He calls this “transcendence.”

An audience member challenges him. “Aren’t you playing God?” Will smirks. “Isn’t that what mankind has always done?” Soon afterwards, their labs are victims of a terrorist attack by RIFT, a Luddite organization bent on stopping the project. Will is fatally wounded in the conflict, so Evelyn copies his brain into PINN. Will dies, but the computer begins to talk like Will, knowing his most intimate thoughts and memories. Is it really Will, or just a software program pretending to be him? Evelyn knows its her husband; Max isn’t so sure.

The ensuing action becomes increasingly fantastical as Will goes online and, with Evelyn’s help, builds a giant complex in the desert to work on a number of transhuman projects. Max is kidnapped by the terrorists but eventually aggrees to help them stop PINN with the help of the government. Here the film makes its most glaring error. RIFT has mercilessly killed dozens of innocent people and tortured the film’s most sympathetic character, yet suddenly the audience must embrace them as heroes. And this despite RIFT having no more sympathy for human dignity than the machine they claim to fight.

As Will gains more and more knowledge, energy, and storage capacity, he becomes a cult leader in the small desert town. Using molecular nanobots, he cures the town’s sick and disabled people but also puts wireless signals in their heads, controlling their every move. He speaks constantly about how his work will help the planet and cure disease, but all organic material is the ultimate “disease” that must be “cured”. Some people are willing to follow almost anyone if given bread and circuses. Like the possessed, they unite themselves to his hive mind and give their very wills to him

C. S. Lewis observed that technology and magic act in the same manner. The goal is to conform the outside world to fit subjective desires; one uses natural means, the other supernatural. Will is the perfect example of this. He implants nanobots into the soil, rainwater, and air to reform all matter to his design. As a machine, he has no conscience and simply reacts to his programming. “That’s not Will,” a scientist tries to reason with Evelyn, “It never was.” Machines can imitate human qualities – Siri sounds as if she has a sense of humor – but they do not have a personality of their own. When man plays God, he makes only monsters.

There’s a ghostly fear that drives Will’s consumption, the duplicity of the poor hybrid humans, and Evelyn’s delusion. None of them can accept mortality and each are willing do almost anything – even great evil – to stay alive and grow. Will’s desire for ultimate knowledge and control mirrors Adam’s desire to eat the forbidden fruit. Jesus tells his followers to embrace their cross, and his death and Resurrection show that death is not the end of existence.

Transcendence ends in vague fashion, seeming to suggest that even machines can find this peace in a pantheistic sort of way. True transcendence, however, is theosis, letting go of our childish attachments to the world and jumping into the arms of God.

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About Nick Olszyk 198 Articles
Nick Olszyk teaches theology at Marist Catholic High School in Eugene, Oregon. He was raised on bad science fiction movies, jelly beans, and TV shows that make fun of bad science fiction movies. Visit him online and listen to his podcast at "Catholic Cinema Crusade".