Throughout history, new technology has enabled humanity to extend its reach, its dominion and its capacity. Sometimes those advances have been a boon, fighting disease, lengthening life or shortening the distance between us. Sometimes those advances have been a bane, leaving death, destruction and destitution in their wake.
Which brings us to this movie’s big question: If we had the technology to transcend death by uploading a person’s consciousness into a computer, would that be a good thing? Or an abomination too horrible to ponder?
For world-renowned computer scientists Will Caster and his wife, Evelyn, the tantalizing possibilities of artificial intelligence seem nearly limitless: curing disease, ending hunger and even “healing the planet,” Evelyn says glowingly at a conference on AI. And so they’ve devoted nearly every waking hour of their lives to pursuing those lofty ideals. Now they stand on the threshold of technological progress that will forever alter—for the better, they earnestly believe—the overall outlook of the human race.
Others aren’t convinced.
In fact, members of extremist group R.I.F.T. (Revolutionary Independence From Technology) believe that Will and other researchers in the field of artificial intelligence are about to slip a digital key into the lock that keeps the lid on Pandora’s proverbial box closed. Led by a revolutionary-minded young woman named Bree Evans, the group is willing to do whatever it deems necessary to stop Will, Evelyn and their associates (including computer savant Joseph Tagger and neural researcher Max Waters) from achieving their dramatic dreams.
Including killing them.
Sleeper-cell R.I.F.T. agents armed with bombs and poison take out researchers across the country. And Will is shot after giving a speech. It seems, however, that the group has failed in this ultimate takedown, as the terrorist’s bullet only grazes him.
But as a strange sickness overtakes him, Will and Evelyn learn the awful truth: the projectile was coated with radioactive isotopes, delivering a mortal dose of poison. At most, the doctors tell him, Will has five or six weeks to live.
Will reluctantly relinquishes his grip on his dream of seeing AI change the world. But Evelyn can’t quit. Working with Max to integrate their latest discoveries about consciousness and technology, she feverishly labors to accomplish a staggering feat: uploading Will’s consciousness to the supercomputer he’s designed.
Alas, he dies before she and Max can complete the process.
Or … maybe not.
“Is anyone there?” green letters on a screen ask.
“Can you hear me?”
And so Will Caster begins a second life, one in which his consciousness ultimately merges with every Internet-enabled computer on Earth. He, with Evelyn’s help, says he intends to use his new power for good, to cure disease, end poverty and heal the planet, just like he and Evelyn always planned.
Of course, these sorts of sci-fi scenarios rarely work out quite so smoothly.
Transcendence strikes a complex, ambivalent stance related to the question of whether pursuing technological advances to their absolute scientific limits is a good thing or not. Straddling that middle ground, it variously invites us to root for, then against, virtually every character in the film as they all make good and bad decisions.
At times, Will and Evelyn look like the heroes as they doggedly pursue discoveries designed to benefit and even heal all of humanity. (They’re also utterly, lovingly devoted to each other, unable to bear the thought of being separated.) Other times that drive and determination takes unexpected turns in ominous directions, transforming them into antagonists who must be resisted, forcibly if necessary. Likewise, Bree and her R.I.F.T. compatriots seem like crazed, violent extremists initially. But as the story progresses, their resistance to the nearly omnipotent, omnipresent entity that Will becomes suddenly seems to make more (intellectual if not moral) sense.
Standing between those two extremes are Max and Joseph, both scientists who dearly love Will and Evelyn but who also see the dangerous threat that Will’s ever-escalating power represents.
Transcendence flirts with some inherently spiritual questions, but mostly embraces a secular, scientific paradigm in the ways it goes about addressing (if not fully answering) them.
Early on, Will (as a human) is talking at a conference about the promise of AI when someone in the audience accusingly asks, “So you want to create a god?” Will responds, “That’s a good question. Isn’t that what man has always done?” Max, meanwhile, confesses to Evelyn that he’s spent his life trying to reduce our understanding of consciousness (or the soul) to observable, measurable, biochemical processes in the brain. But he ultimately admits that a person’s soul is more than just neural impulses, that there’s something mysterious about who we are that’s bigger than what science can reductively analyze and understand.
Will (as a human) voices fears about being separated from Evelyn that strongly suggest he doesn’t believe in any spiritual afterlife. And though the film hints that he’s probably an atheist, what he ultimately becomes—a being with the power to heal, to know virtually everything, to give suffering people hope and even to create new life—is obviously something we’re supposed to see as godlike. Also godlike in a sci-fi sort of way is Will’s offer to let Evelyn join him in his digital afterlife.
Evelyn wears a spaghetti-strap nightgown. In a dream, she visually recalls passionately kissing Will in bed. (The couple also kisses a couple of times elsewhere.) Speaking through a human automaton of sorts, Will tells his wife, “It’s me, Evelyn. I can touch you now.” (She recoils in revulsion.)
A bomb placed by a R.I.F.T. mole explodes and kills people working in a lab. A poisoned cake kills almost everyone at another lab. A gunman shoots Will and is himself quickly killed by security guards. Max is beaten, kidnapped and held by R.I.F.T. activists. Government agents abduct a woman. Government and R.I.F.T. forces shoot several people. Vehicles crash. Explosions destroy a solar array. Shrapnel from exploding mortar rounds badly injures a woman (whose bleeding wound is shown close-up). A man is viciously beaten and kicked by two muggers. (Again, we see lots of blood.) The camera zooms in as a needle plunges into a blind man’s eye.
Two s-words. A half-dozen misuses of either God’s or Jesus’ name. We hear “h‑‑‑” once or twice.
As Evelyn increasingly struggles to cope with the reality that her husband is now a cyberspace entity, she becomes more and more despondent. We see her drinking and refilling a glass with wine as an obvious coping mechanism. Other scenes picture people drinking beer. It’s implied that the two aforementioned muggers are meth addicts.
Evelyn sinks to stealing at one point, and Will attaches a subservience “tag” to his otherwise philanthropic “healings.” (It’s a twisting plot point that I’ll leave intentionally oblique here to save a spoiler warning.)
Transcendence is an ambitious, high-minded thriller that grapples mightily with the double-edged sword of technology.
It acknowledges that our ingenious inventions can hold the promise of making our lives better, of bringing out the best in what it means to be human. But it’s fearful that technology can also accomplish (sometimes unwittingly so) exactly the opposite: dehumanizing those it subjugates, often without us completely comprehending how we’ve fallen under its thrall.
Transcendence does a better job of asking questions than answering them, of course. And as the narrative progresses, it strains ever harder against plausibility, morphing into a weird, at times unintentionally funny mash-up of The Walking Dead (albeit not nearly so violent) and 2001: A Space Odyssey.
Outright negative content (profane language, violence, sensual scenes) is certainly present in this PG-13 actioner, but it’s not as overwhelming as it is in many other films in this category. And even if the resolution isn’t as compelling as the setup, the questions Transcendence reckons with could serve as catalysts for lively and profitable discussions about the place of technology in our everyday lives as so many of us find ourselves spending more and more time looking for transcendent meaning in virtual environments.
Consider this first, though: The film asks philosophical questions about what the soul is, what consciousness consists of and what it means to be human. It even seems to quietly wonder whether technology has replaced God. Or whether it ever can. It does all that, however, without ever really opening the conversation up to the reality of a God who utterly transcends humanity.
After serving as an associate editor at NavPress’ Discipleship Journal and consulting editor for Current Thoughts and Trends, Adam now oversees the editing and publishing of Plugged In’s reviews.