The relationship between humankind and technology has long been fertile ground for filmmakers. Feeding easily into a variety of dynamics – good guys and bad guys, the mighty oppressing the weak, corporate facelessness versus heartfelt creativity – the opportunities for story-telling are endless. The latest entry to this catalogue is Transcendence, written by Jack Paglen.
As the directorial debut of Wally Pfister – best known for his work as cinematographer for Christopher Nolan – Transcendence is an update on the ‘technology tries to take over the world’ trope, incorporating global issues such as environmentalism and healthcare into its narrative. Starring Johnny Depp as Artificial Intelligence researcher Dr. Will Caster, we discover that he and his wife, Evelyn (Rebecca Hall) are trying to create a machine able to achieve sentience and collective intelligence, which Will refers to as ‘Transcendence.’ During a fundraising event, Will is shot by an Anti-AI extremist, with a bullet coated in radioactive material – so even when his gunshot wounds are successfully treated, he is still condemned to a slow and painful death.
His wife insists that his consciousness be uploaded using their project, to allow Will to remain with her and complete their work. However, his best friend Max (Paul Bettany) warns against it as a possibly catastrophic move. Evelyn proceeds regardless, and continues when ‘Will’ asks to be connected to the internet. What follows is essentially a power struggle between the AI consciousness that is now viral around the world, and human authority, trying to retain control of the world and its population.
These are the main features of these movies: power struggle and control. They are each threaded with the sense that the digital realm is something that, though man-made, is not fully understandable, and could therefore easily slip beyond our influence. Though the digital world is one of order, science and mathematics, it is also a faceless world – devoid of feeling and the ability to empathize. It is murky and suspicious – and, since its entirety is unknowable, so are its motivations and agendas.