Has Will Castor become an artificial intelligence with an appetite for power or a digitized human consciousness with the ability to love and reason morally?  Transcendence (2014) examines several deep questions about what it means to be human, what the benefits and dangers of an increasingly technological existence might be, and how mankind might react when faced with a power so far beyond its understanding that it might as well be considered a god.

The soundtrack for Transcendence by Mychael Danna is much more abstract than our more recent movies, setting a very powerful theme and flavor, but not leaving anything behind that you could just hum. Overall, it really added to the flavor of the movie and helped set the mood—mission accomplished.

Transcendence faithfully touches on all the main themes of the standard artificial intelligence movie, but brings some interest twists to the screen with it. Transcendence is almost completely lacking in clearly moral black and white (though the movie sets are heavy with it), and the creators leave the decisions of who is right and who is wrong to the viewer. Even then, you might find that you change your mind all the way up to the last moments of the movie.

We were in agreement that the actors brought a considerable wealth of talent to Transcendence, making the viewer question even the roles that are traditionally thought of as “bad guys.” Eve was pleased with the performance of Kate Mara as the leader of the terrorist group “Revolutionary Independence From Technology” (R.I.F.T.). Tim is dangerously envious of Johnny Depp, and claims not to be a fan, though the verdict is likely still out about that. Both of us were disturbed by the casting of the FBI agent (Cillian Murphy of Scarecrow fame from The Dark Knight).

We were also a bit bothered by some of the technical fallacies, but a little suspension of disbelieve goes a long way and allows the message core of the movie to shine through. While Eve considered the romance between Evelyn and Will (in his various iterations) to be among the strongest stories, Tim felt the romance was secondary to the cautionary tale.

Transcendence has some elements that make it unsuitable for some families, and we heartily encourage you to check out the great review of Transcendence at PluggedIn.com. As always, they did a great job reviewing the movie as a whole and the elements that some might find objectionable.

Technology: Its promise and its peril

One of the most pressing concepts of Transcendence is the understanding of right and wrong, and what is and is not ethical. While artificial intelligence is debated on the level of proving self-awareness, the movie puts forth the dilemma of a machine’s inability to understand right from wrong. Most of the characters seem oblivious to the fact that even the humans are unable to settle on ethical definitions. While this is apparent in the decisions of the R.I.F.T. terrorists, it appears to be just as clear in the morality of the scientists.

While R.I.F.T. is too quick to accuse men of science of a certain level of blindness, in the real world the tendency of the masses to take scientists as unbiased authorities on truth poses a great peril. Scientists seem to take their intelligence and higher education as a license to pass judgment and instruct others in the ideas of right and wrong. However, they are very finite in their understanding of the world, no matter their education, and can’t even come close to God.

The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge, but fools despise wisdom and instruction. (Proverbs 1:7)

Like fire or a hammer, technology is a tool; it is not inherently good or evil. Transcendence seems to do a respectable job showing that technology is not evil, but is a tool that both the good and the bad can use with equal ability. And just like anything else we as Christians are call to do, we are to use it for the glory of God:

So, whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God. (1 Corinthians 10:31)

Whatever you do, work heartily, as for the Lord and not for men, knowing that from the Lord you will receive the inheritance as your reward. You are serving the Lord Christ. (Colossians 3:23-24)

“All things are lawful for me,” but not all things are helpful. “All things are lawful for me,” but I will not be dominated by anything. (1 Corinthians 6:12)

In the end, technology allows mankind to pursue his sinful nature, just like any tool might. One of the questions that the movie raises, like the Will Smith movie “I, Robot,” is would a near-omniscient intelligence determine that the world would be a better place without human kind.

Technology is changing the way that we do so many things, not the least of which is how we teach our children. In the movie, Dr.Taggert calls Dr. Waters to task for his terrible handwriting, but Dr. Waters points out that he hasn’t had to hand write anything since his school days. What would be the long term impact of today’s children not having to learn things like long division in their head or how to write in cursive?

Perhaps the best use for the advanced technology that we have right now, and that which we develop, is to use it in an effort to better understand God’s creation; including the human brain. If nothing else, it can serve to remind us how truly complex creation is. The level of complexity and redundancy we find might just serve to remind us what a awesome Designer created us.

When faced with the certainty of his impending death, Dr. Caster demonstrates a realization of the more important things in life when he realizes that he could spend more time with his wife. It’s this desire to spend the time with Evelyn that leads to his acceptance of her effort to upload his consciousness to the computer system.

It is interesting the way that Transcendence raises the specter of the Y2K meltdown; indeed, implementing it as the frame story. It allows us to see what Y2K might have been like, if everything went as sideways as everyone thought it might. Is it possible that our dependence on technology, and it’s eminently fragile existence, could be setting humanity up for a great failure? Perhaps humanity would become dependent on older generations for the nearly forgotten knowledge of how to function in a world without technology. How would society be forced to change if instant information was no longer an option?

Some good verses about the use of technology: http://www.openbible.info/topics/technology

Evolution With or Without Technology

In Transcendence, the concept of evolution is never questioned, but the movie’s creative minds seem to want to play different ideas against each other. Either we are monkeys or we are not—it does not seem like something you can have both ways. They take this a step farther in fighting the transcendent machine, since by the definition of “survival of the fittest,” the transcended Will Castor should, as the most powerful being on the planet, thrive where lesser life fails. This view seems to hinge on evolution applying to organic life only, though—the narrator tells us that Will Caster’s success would result in the end of organic life on this planet. We ask, “Is organic life the penultimate of evolution?”

Just as it blurs the lines between right and wrong for the viewer, Transcendence also seems to blur the line between life and technology, placing some emphasis later in the movie about the good that Will Caster is doing both for people and the environment. It even goes so far as to blur the line between the two primary questions, leading the viewer to consider the right and wrong of both organic and non-organic life. The movie serves up its lack of moral definition, communicating the point of view of multiple characters with radically different ideologies rather than just that of the narrator. It all works to prompt the audience to question the “rights” and “wrongs” on screen.

The movie makers didn’t seem to do the idea of evolution any favors with Transcendence, as they apparently applied it as a blanket synonym for “change” or “progress” where they felt it served the story—almost as if they were using the term as a buzz-word. The story could easily have stood on its own two feet without the word “evolution,” ever appearing in the script. Will Caster may have transcended, but his story was more strongly supportive of the existence of a creator.

And God made the beasts of the earth according to their kinds and the livestock according to their kinds, and everything that creeps on the ground according to its kind. And God saw that it was good. (Genesis 1:25)

The end of the beginning . . .

So much to talk about and so little time! Join us in episode 48 for the conclusion of our discussion on the Johnny Depp film, Transcendence!

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About the Author
I’m an avid reader and movie lover. There’s not much I like better than reading a book and then seeing the movie version, or watching a movie and then reading the novelization. I have a degree in English literature, which means that at some point in my life I actually received grades for discussing and writing essays about literature. Can’t get much better than that, right? Well, it can. Who needs to pull apart the deep inner workings of dusty old classics when there’s such wonderful fodder in the mass media that people watch (and read) everyday? Above all, I believe that I can’t do much better in this life than in pointing my friends toward a personal relationship with Jesus Christ. Everything makes perfect sense when viewed from a Christian worldview. Even when the intent of the writer was something entirely different, everything can point to our Creator God. He is the foundation for every logical thought, the judge of all evil, and the author of all beauty.

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