Film review | Transcendence

I had the opportunity to see Wally Pfister’s Transcendence, with Johnny Depp, Rebecca Hall, and Morgan Freeman, only last week, more than three months after the film’s release in theaters.

Before seeing the film I satisfied my Transcendence cravings with an old, still unnamed copy of Jack Paglen’s script that can be found online (it appears that Paglen’s screenplay was part of what is known as the Black List, a list of popular but unproduced screenplays in Hollywood). I didn’t know how accurate the online version of the script is, but after watching the film I see that it’s quite accurate, with only a few minor changes in the final version.

The plot: Will Caster (Johnny Depp), a well known Artificial Intelligence researcher featured on the cover of Wired, is shot by terrorists after giving a talk at the “Evolve The Future” conference (similar to a TED talk or Singularity Summit). The “Revolutionary Independence From Technology” (RIFT) terrorists murder also other scientists and destroy their labs all over the country. They attack the lab of Joseph Tagger (Morgan Freeman), the former mentor of Will and Evelyn, now a technology adviser to the FBI. Will, hit by a radioactive bullet, is dying from radiation poisoning and nothing can be done to save him.

But one of the researchers murdered had recently uploaded a monkey to a neural network running on quantum supercomputers, and Will’s wife and partner Evelyn (Rebecca Hall) decides to try to save Will by uploading his mind. She steals the quantum processors of the Physically Independent Neural Network (PINN) supercomputer developed by Will’s lab, now locked down, and starts working in an abandoned warehouse with the help of their best friend, scientist Max Waters.


The image above shows the critical moment of the film: Immediately after regaining consciousness as an electronic version of his former self, Will starts re-engineering and improving his code. Max, worried, watches the log of Will’s ongoing transcendence on a screen. Threatened by RIFT terrorists, Will copies himself out to the cloud, and soon makes a lot of money on the stock market to fund future operations.

Max doesn’t entirely share Will’s and Evelyn’s dreams of super technology. At the “Evolve The Future” conference, he said that he is only interested in the applications of visionary research to health care, to save lives. Max has written provocative essays like “An Unhealthy Reliance on Computers,” and he is basically skeptical – and afraid – of Will’s grand vision of superhuman AI. He doesn’t really believe that the uploaded version of Will is really Will.

Max is captured by RIFT and eventually persuaded to join by terrorist leader Bree (Kate Mara), a former member of the research team that achieved the monkey upload breakthrough. She says that she had second thoughts after the project, and then Max’ writings pushed her to become a luddite terrorist. Max is now working with the RIFT, but continues to feel affection and perhaps love for Evelyn.

Two years later, Will has built a super technology enclave in the desert and developed breakthroughs in AI, nanotechnology, and medicine. Evelyn lives on the compound, in an Augmented Reality (AR) replica of their old house, where she can see and talk to Will’s immaterial avatar. Will is already much smarter than a mere human and much more advanced than the rest of the world – in this version of the Singularity Will, a human upload, is the first AI to achieve runaway super intelligence. Sick people flock to the enclave to be healed and become part of Will’s community.

When Joseph and an FBI agent visit, they find out that Will has developed neural nanotechnology to remotely control people. They conclude that Will is building an army, and of course the government must react. From now on, the government will work together with the RIFT terrorists. Evelyn is more and more frightened of what Will is becoming, and eventually she runs away. Will spreads his powerful replicating nanobots (image below) everywhere on the planet. The nanobots begin to heal the environment and make the world a better place, but Max, Joseph, the government, and now even Evelyn, are afraid that Will’s nanotechnology may cause “the end of primitive organic life.” Will’s facility is destroyed by means of a virus that also causes a global Internet shutdown, but we are subtly left with the impression that perhaps Will and Evelyn are still “somewhere” and the transcendence is still waiting to happen.

Transcendence - nanobots

Transcendence has received some positive reviews (see for example Richard Roeper’s review on Chicago Sun-Times) but many negative reviews, which I find surprising because it is not a bad film. I found Transcendence solid, thoughtful, and entertaining, much better than the average science-fiction film.

Perhaps some negative reviews are disappointed reactions after the high expectations before the release? This seems to be the case of one of the first reviews, on io9: “This movie was supposed to be the new science-fiction hotness. An original storyline about artificial intelligence and brain-uploading, the directorial debut of Chris Nolan’s cinematographer Wally Pfister, a great cast… and yet, it’s getting widely panned. Why did the A.I. revolution fail?” writes Charlie Jane Anders. “It’s really sad, because you have to respect Transcendence‘s ambition, and the timeliness of the ideas that it’s tackling.”

This and other reviews say that Transcendence is weak in the human department, with insufficient character development and all that. “The movie doesn’t even try to conjure emotion,” says Anders. But this is an epic story of ideas, and the characters – the genius dreamer (Will), the scientist with a conscience (Max), the terrorist for a noble (or so she thinks) cause (Bree), the can-do mover and shaker who wants to change the world (Evelyn), the government scientist (Joseph) – are meant as icons and don’t need more depth. Don’t forget that 2001: A Space Odyssey, still the best science fiction film ever made, is totally lacking in character development, yet able to conjure very powerful emotions. Transcendence is not as good as 2001, but it’s a good film, with professional photography and acting. Contrary to what some reviews say, the film recovered the investment of 100M.

After the upload, Will’s voice sounds kind of mechanical and otherworldly. This is meant to leave the spectator in doubt until the end: is the upload really Will or an evil machine pretending to be Will? Bree and Max think that the ghost-in-the-machine is not Will, and even Evelyn has doubts. But I guess most viewers end up persuaded that yes, the upload was Will, and no, he wasn’t evil, on the contrary he wanted to do good and help humanity. I guess some viewers end up persuaded that mind uploading and superAI are not only possible, but desirable and perhaps inevitable. This subtly suggested conclusion goes against the currently fashionable fake-liberal PC War on Imagination (see here for a really stupid example), and I am persuaded that’s the real reason of so many negative reviews. If Transcendence had ended with Max and Evelyn walking hand-in-hand to a Bright Organic-Only Future after defeating the Machine Evil, I think the film would have received more good reviews.

“[The] makers of the film invited various scientists to consult on their treatment of advanced tech like mind uploading, AI and nanotechnology,” says Ben Goertzel, who was invited to speak about AI and mind uploading at the formal launch of the film in Beijing. The treatment of technology in Transcendence is, indeed, much better and more plausible than most Hollywood science fiction.

There are only a few flaws that I can see. First, an important one: the film seems set in the present, so it can give the idea that mind uploading could be achieved next week. This is misleading, because the possibility to upload a monkey, or a person, is still decades in the future. I think they should have included some slightly futuristic gadgets, clothes or something, like in Her, to give the idea that the story happens later in the century. I think it’s important to explain clearly that smarter-than-human AI and mind uploading are feasible in-principle, but probably not imminent.

Some of the special effects are very good, for example the “Will-in-the-walls” avatar, but the utility-fog nanotechnology is far too visible, and overstated. As Ben Goertzel says, the first part of Transcendence is very good, but the second part, beginning two years after Will’s uploading, is not as good, “a bit 1950s SF potboiler style.” I would really love to see the first part of the film expanded to a series of twelve episodes or more – to show in detail what is happening, explore the science and technology of AI and mind uploading, and perhaps even some character development.

Ben Goertzel says: “Transcendence represents a Hugo de Garis style vision of the future of technology (in which it becomes an Us versus Them battle of traditionalist Luddite humans versus those who choose to fuse with technology and become incomprehensibly More Than Human).” I agree that this is the most interesting aspect of the film which, within the limits of Hollywood consumer epics, tries to present both sides fairly.