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part of a small rebellion | by maryann johanson

Transcendence review: AI yai yai

Transcendence red light

The neo-luddite attitude is bad enough, but the movie commits a far worse sin: it’s dull. If only it worked as a schlocky pile of pulp nonsense, that’d be something…
I’m “biast” (pro): the cast is appealing

I’m “biast” (con): really? evil computer? *sigh*

(what is this about? see my critic’s minifesto)

Human beings, at least in some places on planet Earth, are afforded the presumption of innocence until proven guilty. But somehow, pop culture has unilaterally decided that AI — artificial intelligence — is to be condemned before it even exists. And so we have Transcendence, which feels no need to mess about with any metaphoric applications of Evil Computers — like, say, how The Matrix used AI with a grudge against humanity to craft a seductive metaphor about conformity — but goes straight for the cautionary horror tale: Do not create AI, humanity. It’s one of those things in which man was not meant to meddle.

It really is time we dispensed with this anti-science crap, particularly in movies that require massive computing power to get them up on the big screen.

Transcendence — from cinematographer Wally Pfister making his directorial debut and first-time screenwriter Jack Paglen — also, bizarrely, feels no need to mess about with any actual horror. The neo-luddite attitude is bad enough, but the movie commits a far worse sin: it’s as dull as the empty desert sands and the sterile white labs in which much of it takes place. Pfister and Paglen may in fact believe they were making a serious, solemn drama rather than a schlocky pile of pulp nonsense, but given what we ended up with, the latter seems closer, even if it failed in the attempt.

Cuz most of it doesn’t even make any sense on its own terms. When AI scientist Will Caster (Johnny Depp: The Lone Ranger, Dark Shadows) is on death’s doorstep thanks to a terrorist attack by a rabid bunch of anti-AI nutjobs, his partner and wife, Evelyn (Rebecca Hall: Closed Circuit, Iron Man 3), convinces their other partner (in only a work sense, though there is a lot of huggy-kissy stuff all around, so who knows), Max Waters (Paul Bettany: Iron Man 3, Priest), that they should totally upload Will’s brain to their pet supercomputer, PINN, whom the Casters claim is self-aware but all the other experts doubt. (No evidence is offered either way, but PINN does have a sexy voice that sounds an awful lot like Sigourney Weaver’s, for your fanboy pleasure.) The project seems not to work… so what do these dedicated scientists do? Evelyn is all, “Shut it down! We have to wipe the hard drives!” and Max agrees… because that’s what real scientists do, throw a tantrum and destroy all their data the moment they run into a wall, no need to save it for some future point when a breakthrough might be possible. But never mind: that’s the moment that the Will-PINN-AI wakes up and starts talking. Soon, “he” is all over the Internet and plotting to take over the world.

The narrative idiocy on display here is breathtaking. The anti-science terrorists — led by Kate Mara (Iron Man 2, We Are Marshall) — of course turn out to be correct in their fear-mongering, and indeed the FBI — represented here by Cillian Murphy’s (The Dark Knight Rises, Red Lights) agent — later ends up working with her group to stop the Will-PINN-AI from wrecking havoc. (It’s cool how white terrorists led by a pretty woman get to be right, isn’t it?) When Max ends up working with the terrorists, and later their other other colleague Morgan Freeman (The Lego Movie, Now You See Me) asks him, “How did they turn you?” Max — and the movie — don’t even feel the need to answer, even though it’s a darn good question. Later, the Will-PINN-AI that is genius beyond all capacity for human understanding, smarter than all the human beings who have ever lived ever in the history of the world put together… suddenly isn’t, and is tricked by a thing that it should have been able to counter in a nanosecond.

I knew from the opening moments of the movie, when Max tells us in voiceover that “the Internet was meant to make the world a smaller place” — when it was, in fact, never intended to do any such thing — that this was not going to be a movie about real computer science, but just the ignorant fears connected to wrongheaded ideas about computer science. It’s so wrongheaded in every way that it’s not even worth getting angry about.

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Transcendence (2014)
US/Can release: Apr 18 2014
UK/Ire release: Apr 25 2018

Flick Filosopher Real Rating: rated 404 (entertainment not found)
MPAA: rated PG-13 for sci-fi action and violence, some bloody images, brief strong language and sensuality
BBFC: rated 12A (contains moderate violence, bloody images)

viewed in 2D
viewed at a public multiplex screening

official site | IMDb | trailer
more reviews: Movie Review Query Engine | Rotten Tomatoes

If you’re tempted to post a comment that resembles anything on the film review comment bingo card, please reconsider.

  • RogerBW

    Sounds similar in some ways to The Machine: scriptwriters are finally catching up with the transhumanist strain of the 1990s (in written SF, where the ideas usually come from), but having got some ideas and buzzwords they then have no idea what to do with them so they end up trying to tell the same old “change is scary” cautionary tales.

    Some day, “prove you aren’t a robot” will be decried as the biochauvinist phrase that it is.

  • David_Conner

    I was thinking something similar. It sounds like the sort of thing we see periodically from Hollywood: “serious” science fiction made by serious makers of serious fil-ums. People who are so clearly and obviously above the cretinous people who write and read and enjoy science fiction that they needn’t be bothered with learning what might have already been done in the genre.

    As a result, they end up regurgitating ancient SF clichés that were already old hat by the 1950s, let alone today. And the end result is something intended to be a serious thought-provoking fil-um, but is actually every bit as silly as 1953’s The Twonky (look it up!)

  • Repeated twice here is this exchange:

    Human to AI: Can you prove you’re self-aware?

    AI to human: Can you?

  • SF movies are always at least 20 years behind the literature.

  • RogerBW

    And that’s in The Machine too. Ooooooh, deep.

  • Vincent Martin

    I want to go see the movie where AI is a carebear! CAREBEAR SHARE for an entire 2 fucking hours! Rainbow buttholes and all!

  • COGCollussusNotAnAI

    I believe a lot of the references in this movie were lost on people that are not computer scientists, or not versed in pop culture history of things such as the founding of Apple inc, the scientists and innovators that lead up to the breakthroughs before the internet such as Alan Turing, Claude Shannon or Ray Kurzweil. I think that there were a lot of in-jokes and references that were lost on the general audience, but that I as an AI researcher appreciated. This is the case down to the choice of the credit music smoothly evolving from disturbing sounding electronic music to a piece by Bob Dylan, who was revered by Steve Jobs and had a hand in the resolution of the napster vs the music business nonsense and who capitalized on the formation of iTunes, along with the likes of U2 and later (much later after they got over themselves) The Beatles. There were a lot of easter eggs of this type in the movie, so I challenge all the bad reviews to see how many of them they could count.

  • Dylan

    Spoilers probably!!!!

    Interesting that you see this as anti-science. The characters were paranoid and afraid. That’s a pretty realistic portrayal of people in this situation. But the AI never actually did anything evil. He fixed the environment, fulfilled his wife’s dream, and retired to his garden when he got hit with the virus. He could have rebuilt, obviously, but didn’t. In the end, she feels bad for not trusting him. The military is astounded he didn’t kill anyone. They even say during the movie, several times, that people fear what they don’t understand, and that includes us watching the movie. We assume it’s going to turn dark and go bad, but the worst he does is invade his wife’s privacy by trying to empathize with her and network some people’s consciousnesses in a way that we see as creepy.

  • Paul

    So the science may be shit, but at least the movie’s full of loads of business-derived in-jokes, right?

    Well, that totally upended MaryAnn’s review, didn’t it.

  • Dylan

    Also, he wasn’t tricked at the end. He said “I can either heal her or upload the virus, not both”. He chose to upload the virus to save his friend basically proving his humanity, countering the statement made just a few minutes before that the manipulation wouldn’t work because he wasn’t human and wouldn’t care. So the terrorists, the military, even his wife, they were all wrong about him.

    “It’s really you.” “It always was.”

    Maybe that was easy to miss because a lot of scene cuts happen there.

    I usually don’t post so much but I’m just astounded by how differently my friends and I, all computer scientists and neuroscientists, see this movie than everyone else.

  • Dylan

    The science wasn’t shit. It was one of the more scientifically accurate sci-fi movies, down to how you’d iterate over words in a dictionary to record neural maps. Of course, we’re years out from the level of resolution we’d need for those recordings, but it is sci-fi.

    There was a science loophole at the end, with the solar panels, that I think was a plot hole.

  • Dylan

    Here’s some info on the science research that they did: http://newscenter.berkeley.edu/2014/04/18/neuroengineers-transcendence/

    There were a couple of questionable things, around the virus at the end, but they needed a plot device, so they decided to let that one pass. Probably the heartbleed bug :D

  • Paul

    Thanks for the info: appreciated.

    My point was more, though, that “in-jokes and references”, in themselves, don’t make a good movie.

  • Those things are not story, and while they may be enough to satisfy you, there most definitely could not be the only thing that could satisfy me.

    If you make a $100 million movie that’s going to appeal only to computer scientists, you’ve wasted your money. And my time.

  • The science might not be shit, but the attitudes toward science certainly are.

  • Sorry, what?

  • Taking over people and turning them into his automatons without their permission is pretty frakkin’ evil.

  • He’s not tricked into uploading the virus, but he’s tricked *by* the virus. All that astounding computing power… shouldn’t he has been able to isolate that virus somehow and instantly (to our slow human perception) be able to come up with an antivirus?

  • agenius

    Sure, but that happens every day. Except the army doesn’t mobilise en masse to kill the ceo’s

  • It happens every day? CEOs are implanting nanotechnology into people’s heads?

    No, I’m sorry, but what happens here is NOT a metaphor for consumerism or conformity or anything that is going on in the real world.

  • Dylan

    I suppose that depends on your definition of evil. He saved their lives, and most of them (maybe all of them), volunteered. Presumably their networked consciousness became parts of him. It’s meant to be creepy, and it’s meant to make us question whether he’s evil. But we really don’t know what that connection looked like. He didn’t force upload anyone, his wife, the military personnel, etcetera. Would have solved his problems if he had.

    I think he definitely had boundary issues. But no one even bothered to engage him on them. Let’s just shoot first and assume the most intelligent being in existence won’t actually talk to us..,

  • Dylan

    Ahh. Yes. A virus couldn’t touch something that powerful, you’re right. But he’s kind of busy trying to accept the fact that his wife wants him dead and humanity is rejecting what he sees as a message of hope. Also he’s spending a ton of power fighting the military for some reason (that doesn’t make sense). He gave up. He fixed a few things and retired. It didn’t kill him, and if he can reach the garden the virus certainly could.

  • Dylan

    Yeah, I think this is the problem. There’s clearly a line between technical and non here. They screwed something up.

  • Dylan

    Agreed. But good science is just SO RARE in movies that it wins a lot of points in my book for trying. More movies should spend 50k o their 100 M on a single consultant who actually knows something. That’s just so frustrating :D

  • dylan

    I can definitely see how most people would label that consciousness thing as evil, since I basically have to reach to sci-fi books that cover the topic of networked consciousness to make an argument that it’s not. That’s a lot of leeway for off screen interactions that I’m granting the film. It’s meant to be creepy, it’s meant to cross the line, but it’s the kind of creepy cross the line thing that would happen in that situation that normal non-modified people would start grabbing their guns about. Whether or not that’s ultimately better for us as a species (ending war, ending strife), there’s very little we hold more sacred than our independence, and this is a direct assault on that concept. Thinking about that, what we give up, what we should or would be willing to give up is just one part of what makes this movie interesting and one of the reasons I think it’s getting a bad rap.

    You say it’s anti-science, but what bad things did the science do, beyond this ? Are we really supposed to sympathize with the anti-tech crowd who kill innocent people, use beatings and cages as recruitment methods, and ultimately bomb and hold guns on their allies ? Are we really supposed to be completely against an AI that heals the earth ? That heals the blind and sick ? That does all of this because he’s fulfilling his wife’s dreams, not his own ?

    Are we really supposed to buy that they’re presenting a post tech utopia in the dirty streets with soldiers on every corner at the end, where the one bit of bright color you see is being generated by the flowers the AI is keeping alive, presumably for photosynthesis ?

    And are we really supposed to dislike a movie that asks these questions ? That makes us think, that can support a discussion afterward instead of just supporting concessions sales ? And that doesn’t give us any clear cut answers ?

    I think we’re just so conditioned to assume movies are presenting that no power thing as a post tech utopia that we tend to see that as the first thing, but if you really look at it most of what makes that possible (like clean water) was made possible by the AI.

    There’s room for this kind of discussion after the movie, and it’s not as dumb as the kind of discussion for say, the transformers. That has to be worth something, surely ? I haven’t thought this much about a film in a year.

    Anyway, clearly our views are very different, which itself is an awesome reflection of the flexibility of neural networks. We saw different films, because we brought different hardware into the theater. That might not be reconcilable (people can’t reconcile anything!), but it’s fun to talk about.

  • Dylan

    I probably should have phrased some of that as statements, not questions. Sorry. My writing suffers in the morning before coffee.

  • Tonio Kruger

    Wow! An AI that does good things on occasion and yet does bad things too? I’m guessing no one here has seen the 1977 film Demon Seed lately — except, maybe, David Connor — or else they would not be so impressed by this movie’s “new” ideas.

  • Matt Clayton

    It astounds me why Wally Pfister went big with his directorial debut, and failed spectacularly. He should’ve started with a smaller film — even his close friend Christopher Nolan started small and gradually went up the chain.

    Or maybe Pfister should’ve picked a better script to go with.

  • Chris Turnage

    I don’t think he was tricked by the virus at all. He contemplated it, and understood what it meant. My non-canon theory is they set up for a sequel with the garden. Not even Lysol kills 100% of germs and viruses. If the AI took refuge in a sanctuary/garden, that certainly would allow for the AI to re-organize his code and make himself immune to the virus. After this, he would be able to re-expand and reconnect the world again, thus a sequel.

  • My non-canon theory is they set up for a sequel with the garden.

    Yes, I’m afraid that’s what that otherwise nonsensical final scene is meant to do. :-(

  • He saved their lives, and most of them (maybe all of them), volunteered.

    Well, no. We may presume they volunteered to have their injuries cured (we have no idea what sort of percentage would be fatal soon, and which would have gone on living, if with diminished capabilities, like the man in the wheelchair). If they volunteered to be networked in the way we see, so that the AI can completely take them over to do things they might not do on their own (like hurt or kill other people), we have absolutely no indication of this. The film completely avoids that side of the subject.

  • he’s kind of busy

    He should be able to multitask.

  • RogerBW

    Look on the bright side, they tried to set up a sequel to Stealth too. And Transcendence doesn’t seem to have been pulling in a lot of money so far; BOM reckons the opening weekend will end up around $12m, on a production budget of $100m.
    (Man, I remember when $100m was a huge production budget. They made Terminator 2 for that. I know, inflation.)

  • Well, I was actually getting similar vibes about the movie as this review concludes – but considering some of the comments here, I might have to see for myself.

    Side note – if this were to really happen, here’s an organization that would very likely be involved: the Machine Intelligence Research Institute (intelligence.org) – which is the real-life organization researching safety issues in development of Strong AI. When AIs become a real possibility, these are the very smart computer engineers who will be developing the failsafes.


  • Danielm80

    It really is time we dispensed with this anti-science crap, particularly in movies that require massive computing power to get them up on the big screen.

    I’ve spent two days debating whether I should respond to that sentence. I’m very pro-science, especially since “anti-science crap” can lead to Intelligent Design and parents who refuse to vaccinate their kids. On the other hand, I’m very pro-caution, because science can lead to atomic warfare, nuclear meltdowns, Agent Orange, DDT, and global warming. So “anti-science crap,” even in bad movies, does have its uses as a warning system.

    I’d be quick to point out that scientists are our best defense against all the dangers I mentioned above. But I guess I view science the way Homer Simpson views beer: It’s the cause of, and solution to, all of life’s problems.

  • Caution is not the same as “anti-science.” It is, in fact, scientific, to be cautious, especially when handling dangerous materials. There is no situation where true science is not best approach, because all it means is having a disciplined mind that relies on evidence to base assumptions.

  • Anthony

    The way I saw it, he knew exactly what the virus was going to do, so he let the terrorist/strike group have their way and faked his “deactivation” –taking everything powered by electricity with him just to spite them. The garden scene wasn’t so much a sequel-hook as just his way of saying, “See? I was in charge the whole time, and you never stopped me. But you wanted me gone, so I’m gone. Have fun rediscovering steam power, bozos.”

  • Anthony

    I doubt this movie will transcend beyond this weekend, it was so mediocre and pointless. And as a CompSci, I saw it commit the cardinal sins of:
    * Magical nanomachines: They just don’t work that way, nor would they have the power to work that way. The healing ones basically ended up looking like a Cure spell from a videogame.
    * Assuming that anything run by electricity is automatically connected to a network, and can be controlled remotely through said network.
    * Magical computers. But then, you’d have to believe in magical computers to even see this movie.

  • RogerBW

    Final domestic opening even lower than expected, $10.9m. I don’t think it has legs.

  • Zap

    I just saw this “movie”.
    Apart from quite realistic display of nano-technological potential the rest is fearmongering GARBAGE!
    Oh the smart AI taken over by a virus?
    Haha let me re-write my own code in a fucking nano-pico-seconds – goodbye human made virus!
    I also made back-ups all over the world.

    Seriously this is SO retarded.
    Scientists collaborating with religious nut-jobs!

    Fuck this shit. Fuck the anti-science MORONS, i am so SICK and TIRED of these morons and their anti-science crap !

  • Dr. Rocketscience

    Caution about actual dangers, sure. Caution about made-up bullshit? Not so much. The possibility of a magic human/AI inventing magic nanobots that can cure congenital blindness and are really good at impressions/ventriloquism isn’t an actual danger.

  • Dr. Rocketscience

    The AI doesn’t give up. It deliberately uploads the virus, in order to save Paul Bettany from being shot by the terrorist lady. He also tells Paul Bettany that he can either upload the virus or save the girl, because REASONS. He then lets the virus shut everything down, causing worldwide chaos that hasn’t dissipated 5 years later because REASONS. The ending only works if the all-powerful computer suddenly loses all of tis powers. It’s possible the AI faked its death, and shut down the human world so that its nanobots could go fix the rainforests or whatever without human intervention, but that’s not at all clear in the film.

  • Tonio Kruger

    Well, I always got the impression from writers like Isaac Asimov and Spider Robinson that true science required a rather skeptical mentality to begin with so it always puzzles me that so many of its would-be proponents seem to prefer an attitude of blind faith. At least, they seem to prefer such an attitude as far as science is concerned.

  • Bluejay

    Who are these proponents, and what are some examples of their blind faith?

  • Tonio Kruger

    Well, to be honest, there was a time a few years back when I would have put you in that category, Bluejay, simply on the basis of that remark you once made about how, yes, science made mistakes but since it was more self-correcting than most religions, that was not a big deal. But I have long since mellowed and anyway, my views on science and religion are more complicated now.

    On the other hand, I still dislike the way certain atheists who post here continually praise themselves as being more enlightened than people who believe differently simply on the basis of their religious beliefs. (The recent poster on another thread who showed so much emotion over the question of whether or not a certain African-American scientist was a real atheist being the most obvious example of this mentality.) Not only does this seem a tad unscientific for people who are allegedly so obsessed with science and reality, it inevitably invites comparisons with those born-again Christians who are always bragging about how “they know the Lord,” those Catholics who was always bragging about how they’re members of the one true Church and so on.

    Of course, it doesn’t help that most of my offline experiences with atheists contradict this so-called reputation for enlightenment that certain atheists are always bragging about. At best, most atheists I meet have the same virtues and vices that are possessed by the best religious people I know. At worst, well, suffice to say I have heard words like “Polack” and “fag” used by enough atheists to have great doubts about the enlightenment of such individuals. And that’s without widening the discussion to include certain notorious historical atheists who haven’t exactly given the group a good reputation.

    Even when I do meet atheists who actually live up to their reputation for enlightenment, I can’t help but think of the same question you once brought up regarding religious people who actually live up to their ideals: How much of said enlightenment is part of said person’s true personality and how much is due to their religious beliefs (or lack thereof)? Plus: Would the same person be just as virtuous if he or she were a member of a different religion or a holder of a different type of religious belief? And if not, why not?

    For that matter, I am also not very fond of people who use the word “bright” to refer to atheists, especially if they themselves are atheists. After all, if Isaac Asimov — who was a member of Mensa — did not feel the need to label himself a “bright”, then what’s the average atheist’s excuse?

    I could go on but I would rather not. After all, I’m not in favor of a non-scientific society — in fact I owe my life to medical procedures which would have never been available in a medieval society — and like Danielm80, I believe there is something to be said for having a critical attitude toward science instead of the Panglossian attitude we have gotten about seemingly almost every new scientific invention since the cotton gin.

    Then again, some of the most popular films in the last fifty years — for example, : Coma, Jurassic Park, The Terminator series, Good Will Hunting, War Games — encourage a less than worshipful attitude toward science so maybe I’m in good company.

  • Bluejay

    Whoa. That’s a broader and more involved answer than I was expecting. And I’m flattered you remember so much of what I’ve said. :-)

    If I’ve ever sounded strident in defense of science, it was probably in debate with some evangelical holier-than-thou who wanted to disparage the scientific enterprise as a whole *and* suggest that science and religion were somehow equivalent in nature, process, and empirical validity. I do recognize, as I’m sure you do, that there’s a difference between the scientific method and the resulting technology and policies, which — like all tools in flawed human hands — can be used for good or ill. (The recent Cosmos episode on lead poisoning actually makes that distinction quite well.) Humans fuck up, and therefore humans who perform and promote science can fuck up. But science itself — the constant striving for “a disciplined mind that relies on evidence to base assumptions,” as TempestDash describes it — remains, I think, a good idea.

    Also — as I’ve argued in that thread about “a certain African-American scientist” who is Neil deGrasse Tyson but who for some reason you don’t wish to name :-) — there’s a difference between science and atheism. I think it’s a mistake to conflate the two; it leads to messy arguments.

    Re: “certain atheists who post here”: Whenever I read comments here by arrogant self-righteous believers, I remember that there are *other* religious commenters here (such as yourself and some others) whom I find to be fine, smart, decent people. When you read comments here by arrogant self-righteous atheists, I hope *you’ll* remember that there are (cough) other nonbelievers here who’ll try to get them to behave civilly.

  • Cave Johnson

    Will is no GlaDOS

  • Rebecca Dalmas


    I guess it was interesting enough to get Stephen Hawking’s attention. “If a superior alien civilisation sent us a message saying, “We’ll arrive in a few decades,” would we just reply, “OK, call us when you get here – we’ll leave the lights on”? Probably not – but this is more or less what is happening with AI.”

  • Hawking’s been saying this for years.

  • Rebecca Dalmas


  • Renārs Grebežs

    Bashing of science ‘behind the scenes’ was unnerving, though what really made my blood boil was the complete lack of regard for the main protagonist. The character was well-intentioned, there was no motive for controlling people, overtaking the financial system, etc, etc, but nevertheless the one man who tried to solve all of the mankind’s problems got to be the bad guy. Why? The AI was really just an advanced copy of the real man and the sentence somewhere along the way that “*he* never really loved her” is ridiculous. This being would possess not only advanced knowledge of science but also moral standards of a grandiose sort. He would indeed become god and, therefore, would not see the need to control anyone – for NOBODY could hurt him.

    Really disappointing.

  • Juan

    what’s the name of Bob Dylan’s song on the first part of the movie?

  • I haven’t got a clue. Why not try Google?

  • xbeton0L

    Isn’t that similar to Google’s strategy?

    They are somewhat god-like, and because no one can hurt them, they don’t try to harm anyone. Which makes them awfully trustworthy with our personal information.

    On the other hand, banks do have something to lose and are albeit strangely less trustworthy than an open-ended search engine.

  • xbeton0L

    I second your enthusiasm.

  • xbeton0L

    First off, wouldn’t have been better to have the nanites run by independent systems/software?

    In quantum computing, matter itself can become the computational device, and in all purposes, it would only require a miniscule amount of space and less energy requirements than a cluster of cells within the human body. Will-AI could have made an internal server for the nanites within each person infused with them, thus eliminating the “need” to be “connected” all the time.

    The movie does a really bad job of showing exactly who the bad guys were.

  • Renārs Grebežs

    That’s different. In the movie the main protagonist is the sole decision maker, whereas Google’s interests are determined by many different factors, including investors’ interests, stock market, trends, government policies, etc.

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