There are multiple sci-fi themed movies coming out this year, and among them is another story that aims to tackle the idea of the Singularity. Transcendence is about the creation of an Artificial Intelligence. In this tale, the AI is being created by Dr. Will Caster (Johnny Depp). However, while he’s out on the lecture circuit giving speeches about the power of an AI he is shot by a member of an anti-technology terrorist group called RIFT. The bullet used to kill him is laced with radiation, so while the bullet wound itself does not prove fatal, Caster is still poisoned and will die. Fortunately his slow demise gives his wife Evelyn (Rebecca Hall) and his friend Max Waters (Paul Bettany) the opportunity to load his consciousness into the AI platform.
Following his transcendence into machine form, Dr. Caster seemingly becomes obsessed with knowledge and power. Having a far great capacity for intelligence and the ability to interact with anything that’s connected to the web, he starts to flex his muscle, so to speak, and see what sort of things he can accomplish. Evelyn seems to be along for the ride (at least initially) as she still feels that Caster, even in AI form, is the man she loved. Meanwhile Waters, a young woman named Bree (Kate Mara) — who I’m guessing is associated with RIFT somehow but is certainly anti-AI as seen in the trailer — and the disembodied narrator voice of Morgan Freeman decide that they need to try and shutdown the Caster AI before he/it causes too much damage.
I am somewhat curious to see how this film plays out, but the trailer suggests to me that the message of the film is that on some level our terrorist friends RIFT are the good guys. The AI is too powerful and should never have been created, so the terrorists, though extreme in their methods, were right all along. To me this is a problematic message.
First of all (outside of Counter Strike) the terrorists should never win; it’s just un-American. But, really, I find it perplexing that the sympathetic viewpoint for the film could be that of the anti-tech radicals. Personally I think that the Western “fear of technology” or “Terminator” narrative is a little overdone. I’d like to see more stories (especially movies) that focus on the potential positives of an AI, or at least present a more nuanced cautionary tale than THE ROBOTS WILL DESTROY US ALL (to be fair I suppose Her falls into that category, but a fun big budget action movie that was AI friendly would be nice). I also have an issue with a narrative that on some level says that any kind of anti-progress or anti-technological movement, especially one made up of extremists who are willing to commit violence to get their way, is in the right. Maybe Bree and the other characters trying to stop AI Caster aren’t terrorists themselves, but the terrorists are proven correct in their motivations if the AI becomes the evil, unstoppable and destructive force they feared.
Obviously the film hasn’t been released yet, and I don’t know how it will turn out. Maybe in the end there’s a twist and the AI doesn’t prove to be the destructive force they feared, but I’m not really holding my breath on that possibility.