Transcendence casts Johnny Depp as a brilliant scientist who plots out grand plans for The Singularity, only to become that omnipotent, sentient technological himself when an assassination attempt goes awry.
While the new film is a look at what happens when technology becomes humanoid, it’s certainly not the first movie to ever do so. In fact, cinema has been toying with the idea of The Singularity — the point at which A.I. acquires beyond-genius-level intelligence — since the 1920s, even if it was never called that back then.
The Singularity has been showing up in films for decades, ranging from talking, all-knowing computers who refuse to do what we say to robots who serve along humans without explicit direction or order. As such, there are some amazing examples of Retro Singularity, a primitive, Tomorrowland-esque version of the future that writers of the past may have not even known they were predicting.
Think all the way back to Metropolis, the 1927 film that brought us Maria, the robot who was so lifelike she threw an entire city into flux with their insatiable lust. When Maria is built, she resembles her inspiration so closely that it tricks the citizens of Metropolis into believing she’s the original. She’s burned as a “witch” because of their confusion – she walks, talks and persuades just as well as any woman.
Moving into the 1950s, when technology became more advanced and robots morphed into more than “tin cans,” there was Forbidden Planet, the film that introduced Robby the Robot. Robby was more than a servant or machine; he was a fully functional character who conversed with his human counterparts and offered his own ideas. While the voyagers of the cruiser C57-D remained stuck on the Planet Altair IV, it was Robby who detects the murderous creatures who have come to harm the humans. He’s smart enough to know what the humans cannot.
Cartoons even got into the business of predicting The Singularity, with The Jetsons being the biggest perpetrator of showing a unique vision of the future. From 1962 until the late 1980s (and today in the safety of reruns), 2062’s favorite family was surrounded by visions of far-off technological greatness. Rosie the family maid and caretaker is in robot form, and just as much a part of George’s family as daughter Judy or his wife Jane. Rosie is sassy, intelligent and does almost as much of the parenting as George and Judy. Moreover, she’s respected as much as the humans in the household despite being an “outdated” robot model.
While at work (which is only a couple days a week, typical for the time), George works with R.U.D.I., a sentient computer that’s also his best friend. R.U.D.I. isn’t just George’s work – he has a personality and even exists in a league called the Society for Preventing Cruelty for Humans – indicating that in this corny, fun little cartoon, a number of advanced computers exist and are conversing with each other. They’ve also felt a need to protect their humans from any computers who might step out of line. In one episode, R.U.D.I. basically goes crazy when George and the family are transferred to a remote planet, injecting emotional intelligence into his (her? its?) unimaginable processing power.
It’s almost a precursor for last year’s Her, wherein Samantha (Scarlett Johansson), the iOS companion to the lonely Theodore (Joaquin Phoenix), becomes so much more than a computer program. She thinks, speaks and sings with Theodore and exists as his best friend and love, a hyperintelligent being far beyond what he ever thought possible when he first plugged her in. But what makes her the most fascinating is the moment in the film when she’s absent for a period of time; the silence is palpable in Theodore’s life. When she returns, she tells him that she and a group of other iOS’s shut themselves off in order to program some more advanced code. It’s a throwaway line, but eerie in its focus; Samantha is developed enough – as well as other systems in her universe – to think and morph without human intervention. They’re operating on their own.
Even the Marvel universe has had its hands in the Singularity game more than once, dating back to the 1940s.
The “Captain America” comics, now adapted as Captain America: The First Avenger and Captain America: The Winter Soldier, depicted the Nazi doctor/villain Armin Zola’s transformation into a supercomputer housing his consciousness with great detail. As the computer Zola, he was kept alive (even if it’s housed in a desolate, dusty warehouse in the middle of nowhere) for decades longer than his human body could ever last – keeping his brain and wide breadth of knowledge in tact. It’s much like what happens to Depp’s character in Transcendence – a body out of function, but a brain plugged into a computing unit so powerful it houses all the secrets of its consciousness and more.
Of course, Marvel has also brought us J.A.R.V.I.S., the friend and computer system assisting Tony Stark in the Iron Man films and The Avengers. More than just a fancy operator, J.A.R.V.I.S. predicts Stark’s needs before he even asks them, builds him new equipment and consults him on his next moves. He’s another voice guiding him in his life, and a friend in times that he needs it; he’s got a mind of his own, and one that Stark desperately needs.
Since the Singularity hasn’t happened yet, technically even the modern versions here will be retro-looking versions at some point. Media has been toying with the idea for years through living robots and uploaded consciousnesses, but it will be most interesting to see where it goes from here. We’ll have to wait to see what living robot production designers come up with.