That's Not Will

PINN's underground fortress in Transcendence
“That’s Not Will”
A Review of Transcendence by Nick Olszyk

MPAA Rating, PG-13
Reel Rating, Three Reels          

            Transcendence is a dark, deep, and beautiful film from first time director Wally Pfister that exposes his roots as one of Hollywood’s premiere cinematographers. 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 a shame the script couldn’t 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 scientists including Dr. Will Caster (Jonny Depp), his wife Evelyn (Rebecca Hall), and their friend Max Waters (Paul Bettany) close in on creating the first 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 collective knowledge of all human history. 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 more and more fantastical as Will goes online and builds a giant complex in the desert with Evelyn’s help to work on a number of transhuman projects. Max is kidnapped by the terrorists but eventually aggress to help them stop PINN with the help of the government. It’s here that the film makes its most glaring error. RIFT mercilessly killed dozens of innocent people and tortures the film’s most sympathetic character yet suddenly the audience must embrace them as heroes. They have 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 they provide 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 subject desires, one simply uses nature 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. A scientist tries to reason with Evelyn. “That’s not Will. It never was.” Machines can imitate human qualities – Siri sounds like she has a sense of humor – but they do not have a personality of their own. Like the Golem or Frankenstein, 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. They cannot accept mortality and 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 apple. Jesus tells his followers to embrace their cross, and that death is not the end of existence. Transcendence ends in vague fashion that seems to suggest even machines can find this peace in a pantheistic sort of way. True transcendence is theosis, letting go of our childish attachment to the world and jumping into the arms of God.

This article first appeared in Catholic World Report on May 5th, 2014.