I am not talking about the overt nonsense in the tale where the main character’s personality is uploaded into a supercomputer, which subsequently attempts to forcefully elevate humanity into a perceived higher state of digital interconnected consciousness. The story is not really about a misguided superhuman online digital intelligence that attempts to remake our damaged world using a combination of mind control and nanotechnology.
No, as is so often the case in fantastic tales such as these, the real story is in the far more mundane subtext. The terrible unthinkable truth, according to this story, is that the unfettered growth of the technology enabling our interconnected digital universe is destroying our humanity and, by extension, threatening our existence.
Paradoxically, the main character of the film – the brilliant computer scientist whose technology allows him to be morphed into an online super intelligence – seems conflicted on the very issue of the wired versus unplugged world. He prefers to listen to his favourite music on a turntable playing a vinyl record rather than use an iPod. He also builds a Faraday cage in his back yard to shield his tiny flower garden from electromagnetic radiation. Yet he has no problem espousing the virtues of creating an all-seeing, all-knowing, omnipresent globally networked artificial intelligence with godlike powers.
As the narrator explains in the aftermath of an apocalyptic technological meltdown, the Internet was supposed to make the world a smaller place. In fact, as the narrator contends, the world without the Internet seems much smaller. To some, the picture Transcendence paints of a society unplugged from technology may not seem so bad. Yes there is no power, roads are overgrown with weeds, buildings are in decay, and soldiers in combat fatigues patrol the streets to keep order. However, people are riding bicycles and a local shopkeeper opens for business wedging an old computer keyboard underneath his door to keep it ajar. Despite the disarray, there seems to be an odd sense of community.
Transcendence, unlike the classic Sci-Fi flicks of machine intelligence gone mad, such as Terminator and The Matrix, is set in our present time and attempts to challenge us with uncomfortable questions. Unfortunately, because it is such a poorly made and scripted film, it does this in a very dreary and clumsy manner. Thus, far fewer will see it than if it had been a box office blockbuster. Then again, Kubrick’s 2001 was also a box office flop on its initial release, not that Transcendence comes even close to that masterpiece. Perhaps a better comparison would be with the cult Sci-Fi classic They Live – as a work of art, the product is poor but the message is unmistakably valid.