Transcendence or Something Like It: Localroger Goes to the Movies

Localroger recently screened Transcendence and agreed to share his thoughts on the blog. I would also note that the L.A. Times is reporting that this movie is a big time flop. Do you think it would have been a bigger hit if it had more openly acknowledged its debt to visionaries like Thomas Ryan and our own Localroger? Or do you think the book-readin’ portion of science fiction fandom is too small to make any material difference in most movies’ fates? Feel free to comment at the end. And now let me turn over the helm to Roger…BUT FIRST PLEASE NOTE THE SPOILER WARNING. IF YOU HAVEN’T SEEN THIS FILM AND YOU PLAN TO, PLEASE DON’T READ ANY FURTHER UNTIL YOU HAVE. THANK YOU.


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Transcendence is a pretty good movie, if you can get over the fact that it’s not quite any of its source material. To the cynical mind, Transcendence appears to get most of its ideas from five sources: The Metamorphosis of Prime Intellect, Mortal Passage, The Adolescence of P-1 by Thomas Ryan, the movie Brainstorm, and an array of mostly nonfiction works by Singularity theorists who specifically believe nanotechnology will be the enabling vector for the fast takeoff.

One could make a good argument (and some of my fans probably will) that if the filmmakers had paid me for the rights and called the main characters Lawrence and Caroline instead of Will and Evelyn, it’d be at least as close an adaptation as the currently running Hannibal Season series is of anything Thomas Harris ever wrote.

So shall we play the Transcendence Drinking Game? You might want to make sure you bring a whole fifth of booze because you’ll need it.

  • The opening credits and operatic aria nicely quote the movie Brainstorm, and the movie does this again when Will’s transcendence echoes Michael Brace’s ascendence into heaven.
  • The movie then opens into a future where humans have lost all technology and are living off the land. DING! Then five years previouser…
  • Johnny Depp / Will Caster is having to do something unpleasant and out of character to schmooze for funding for his AI. DING! Except that it’s giving a Not-TED talk with his wife to a bunch of investors. Caster seems to be about an even mix of Lawrence and Brace from Brainstorm.
  • A questioner from the audience asks if Caster is trying to create God, and he answers (as he’s haloed by video of a soaring gull) “Isn’t that what we always do?” DING!
  • During the conference multiple AI labs are attacked. After the conference Law^WCaster is shot by a fanatic. DING!
  • Unlike in MOPI, numerous other labs are hit by the fanatics who are quite organized (though they end up in cahoots with the government later DING!).
  • One of the few survivors of the terrorist attack is Morgan Freeman as Joseph Tagger. Since Caster has the only lab that has pretty much survived Tagger asks him to join forces, but Caster isn’t having it: “I’m not letting the government in.” DING! (They never make it quite clear what still-human Caster’s objection to letting the government in is, which really makes me think he’s channeling Lawrence here.)
  • Caster does give Tagger a tour of his prototype AI, named PINN (DING!). Tagger asks PINN if it can prove it’s self aware, and it responds, “That’s a difficult question, can you prove you are?” (DING! Hell make it a double DING!)
  • Although they do not provide the modality for driving the fast takeoff, both PINN and its bigger successor are powered by “advanced quantum processors.” DING!
  • After Caster is shot and it turns out the bullet was poisoned, the theme shifts from MOPI to Mortal Passage. Evelyn going through the notes realizes that one of the other labs had solved the problem of uploading an animal’s intelligence, solving the problem of creating an AI by simply importing an I that’s not A. DING!
  • Later in the movie one of the terrorists notes that all the uploaded rhesus monkey ever did was scream, which was one of the reasons she turned on her teachers. DING!
  • After being uploaded Caster’s first communication with his wife is through a text console with a greater-than sign for a line prompt. DING!
  • Upon realizing that his software isn’t well optimized for its new digs, Caster sets about rewriting himself to fit better. DING!
  • And here we flit to something I didn’t write: Thomas Ryan’s The Adolescence of P-1. Caster’s uploaded consciousness escapes into the Internet and manipulates the financial markets to make his wife a millionaire, identifies a dead desert town as a suitable site, and sets her to building him a supertech lair all in very P-1 fashion.
  • As robo-Caster comes into his power (TWO YEARS LATER) it develops a mature nanotech capability very familiar from a lot of current Singularity thinking. Caster’s nanomachines can rebuild or dissolve machines, heal any health problem, and bring the humans it heals into a very powerful collective intelligence.
  • And all this connectivity is powered by The Internet. This must be some alternative universe with internet connections that work a lot better than ours.
  • The government (forces led by Morgan Freeman’s Tagger) tries to shut down CasterNet with raw military force and gets its ass handed to it by a bunch of unarmed civilians and nanobots. DING!
  • The moment one of his enhanced peeps gets captured CasterNet realizes that “they have my source code, they will begin creating a virus.” I think we are supposed to notice for ourselves that he has already rewritten himself once, and he’s got warning.
  • Evelyn completes her morph into Caroline by being the only person important enough to Will to serve as a vector for the virus if he tries to upload her. Of course this totally works. DING!
  • Back in the teaser with the power failed everywhere it is revealed that some of the nanobots survived and rejuvenated some flowers in Will and Evelyn’s private garden. In a final voiceover we are reminded that “Will built that garden for the same reason he did everything — to be together with her.” THAT IS, WILL AND EVELYN END UP ALL ALONE IN A GARDEN. Simulated in nanobots sure but DID I SAY DING YET?
  • Also quoted by the ending, in P-1 the supertech lair is destroyed and the inventor killed but the girlfriend who survives finds herself by a terminal after the shouting is over (this being set in the 1970’s it took some contrivance) and she types the callout “P-1” in to see what happens. The message she gets back is OOLCAY ITAY.

To be fair, a lot of these ideas and images have appeared in other stories; most of them have TVtropes pages. But it is a little startling to see so many of them in one place at the same time.

Still and all, while I enjoyed Transcendence and found its devotion to my ideas quite flattering, I’m really glad they didn’t buy the rights and call it MOPI, even though they probably could have gotten away with that.

The reason for that is that MOPI isn’t about a conflict between the Singularity AI and humanity. Prime Intellect isn’t defective or power mad; it is simply balked by our own perversity and inconsistency.

Transcendence turns into a straight up conflict story about the Seed AI and human power structures. Such a conflict can only end in three ways; humanity wins, the AI wins, or humanity “wins” as the AI heads for the stars or plays possum. The movie has enough heart to show us explicitly that WillNet was still Will at the end, he never was a real threat, he executed the final battle (unlike the human forces) without killing a single person, and he is learning to understand how and why his gifts squicked so many people.

I can easily imagine a future in which Will and Evelyn come back, but much more gradually, healing the Earth without fanfare (oddly the threat of billions of people starving in this newly tech-free world isn’t mentioned at all) and introducing gifts at a rate ordinary people can accept. I can’t imagine that future being made into a sequel though, because it would represent the AI winning, and it being GOOD that the AI won, and I don’t think that’s a narrative Hollywood is ready to tell.

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3 thoughts on “Transcendence or Something Like It: Localroger Goes to the Movies

  1. I still haven’t seen this flick myself and probably won’t. For those who didn’t click on the LA Times thoughts about how & why it flopped, here’s the one sentence executive conclusion: “The film could come to be viewed in the same manner as things in the technology world it portrays — an early buggy prototype, hardly smooth but part of a wave that started it all.”

    I’m guessing that science fiction readers feel like the “wave that started it all” came decades before this movie! I’m not sure how they could have connected better with the fan base but if the filmmakers (and the LA Times) really believe these are new ideas, they’re not SF literate. They’re just comic book SF literate. In my humble opinion anyway…

  2. The instant I saw the first Transcendence trailer, my mind went straight to MOPI. I thought to myself, well, I already saw this movie. Turns out that I did. I still like the fact that it was made and we can get another take on the ‘tech singularity’ genre.

  3. Great comment, Ben: “Well, I already saw this movie.” That’s one of the reasons I don’t go to the movies much any more. I don’t have the patience. I leave the movie viewing to Roger!

    But you’re right. It’s great that it was made — and it sounds like more movies on similar ideas are in the works — because it’s a deep issue that could be explored on a lot of levels, in lots of books and movies.

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