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How 'Transcendence' Failed To Communicate A Real Possible Future To Mainstream Audiences


transcendence morgan freeman

In a misleading article on CNN.com this week, Americans were said to be “excited” and “upbeat” about the way technology will improve our lives in the future. The headline of the piece, though, claims it’s about Americans being “wary of futuristic science, tech.” The article reports the findings of a telephone survey that surprisingly wasn’t tied to the release of the movie Transcendence, which seems at first meant as a promotion of the real possibilities of artificial intelligence, mind uploading and nanotechnology.

Misleading in its own way, the movie begins with optimism about advances in A.I. research and then by the end has shown us the dangers of a self-aware omniscient computer that can create super soldiers, controlled via wifi and repaired via tiny, quick-acting robots. Audiences don’t seem to be walking away from the movie actually wary of this futuristic science and tech, though, because it plays out so far from believable that at many moments viewers are straight-up laughing at the way both the plot and science progress on screen.

But should the science of Transcendence be believed? And if so, should the movie have been more clear and genuine regarding the plausibility of what all occurs? 

Because the science involved is mostly still at speculative stages, it’s unknown what would in fact happen after a person’s brain was uploaded to a computer and then the Internet. It’s also unknown just how far nanobot capability will go once the technology is achieved on a foundational level. Theoretically, things could move at an astonishing pace once everything is set in motion. The exponential growth of technology so far is the big indicator that this will be the case.

However, even futurist Ray Kurzweil, who focuses on exponential growth for his Law of Accelerating Returns and his ideas on where technology is headed — ideas which clearly inspired much of Jack Paglen‘s script for Transcendence – spaces out over a few decades much of what we see in the movie as happening rather immediately and altogether within the span of only five years.

In his best-selling 2005 book “The Singularity is Near,” Kurzweil’s refined predictions for the future (begun in 1990′s “The Age of Intelligent Machines” and continued with 1999′s “The Age of Spiritual Machines”) estimate that medical-use nanobots will be here in the next decade, true A.I. will be achieved by 2029 and mind uploading will be possible in the 2030s, while what seems to be the sort of god-like A.I./human hybrid Johnny Depp‘s character becomes in Transcendence isn’t anticipated until sometime beyond 2045.

Of course, Transcendence is set sometime in the near future (possibly as far as the 2020s?) and winds up with a different chronological path due to special, imperative circumstances — a path that maybe, in that form, is realistic. Yet perhaps, as Matt Patches writes in a recommended piece at Nerve, it doesn’t and shouldn’t matter if it’s realistic, because it’s science fiction.

Day After Tomorrow

Well, science fiction can be outright fantasy and nightmare, but in some cases it ought to be in service to both the science and how that science affects human behavior and society and, in worst case scenarios, existence. Transcendence reminded me a lot of Roland Emmerich’s disaster movie The Day After Tomorrow, which was based on predictions regarding climate change, had legitimate advisers on the science involved and to a degree was reasonable in its overall projections of what could happen as a result of global warming. The only problem is that the movie depicts the progression way too fast, making it appear more implausible, to the point that it’s laughable.

For years I’ve wondered if The Day After Tomorrow wound up being so much of a joke that it did more damage for the climate change issue than good, even though Emmerich is a huge advocate for awareness about that issue.

Paglen, whose wife is a computer scientist who provided a lot of expertise on the movie’s subject matter, doesn’t seem to be as passionate about the pro or con of technology, even if he winds up painting its progress darkly. He’s more interested in just asking, “What if?” than in making the audience concerned about the science. Yet he makes a case for why we should be concerned anyway, through his plotting, even if he blows that case by similarly going too rapid with the speed of technological advancement.

The problem of speedy science doesn’t just affect movies dealing in important ideas like climate change and the reality of artificial intelligence. Another that comes to mind as being like The Day After Tomorrow and Transcendence is Ivan Reitman’s Evolution. That sci-fi comedy deals with the evolution of creatures and plant life from a single extraterrestrial organism, and this evolution occurs over days rather than millions of years, which makes it seem pretty silly.

But it’s intended to be a humorous story, and even if it weren’t, Evolution is still recognizable as more fantastic than scientific. It has no effect on the audience’s acceptance of evolution as a scientific theory, in part because the scenario is based in a chance accident of a very particular meteor hitting Earth, not something impossible but also not something expected with reasonable prognosis. Audiences may have found it all too ridiculous even for a fantastical comedy, however, due to that fast-paced scenario.

Dawn of the planet of the apesOne movie that works a lot better than the others is Rupert Wyatt’s Rise of the Planet of the Apes. It’s a relatively quick story, time-wise, from the introduction of a drug that increases intelligence to a chimpanzee inheriting that drug’s effects leading a revolution of hominid animals and subsequent viral extermination of the human race. Those are comparatively simple and few steps, though, especially compared to the scientific repercussion pile-ons of The Day After Tomorrow and Transcendence, and Wyatt paces the movie to give the feeling like the progression of those steps is not too quick.

Mainstream audiences aren’t necessarily not smart enough to comprehend sci-fi scenarios that progress more rapidly, but it’s understandable that they might prefer stories that take their time with such ideas. Imagine if the Terminator movies were condensed into one installment and that the time that lapsed over the course of the plot was fairly brief. It wouldn’t work nearly as well. Some stuff needs to just be hinted at or very briefly explained as background and back story.

Most sci-fi movies about technological advancements fortunately avoid following the stages of the advancement. It’s better, and easier on the audience, to jump into a futuristic plot involving robots or time travel instead of watching the genesis of the tech and how its progress unfolds (especially if the real science is only theoretical). If we do see stages, it’s good if there’s a clear indication of time passed, as in how it’s communicated that Doc Brown first got the idea for the flux capacitor in 1955 and then didn’t make it a reality for 30 years.

There’s definitely significant time passing in Transcendence, mainly between the time that Depp’s character’s mind is uploaded and the construction and operation of an enormous facility housing the character’s servers and his scientific research and invention. Maybe a couple years go by. That’s just not enough for something with a broader outline in real life, especially when that something is not as plain and familiar a concept as a spaceship or a time machine or even a robo-cop.

Any concepts intended to be a possible reality, though, still needs to be acceptable in addition to plausible. Technological progress can happen faster and faster, but it can’t really be introduced faster than people are able or willing to embrace. That is true for real life and the movies. CNN.com’s article notes that most people are not currently okay with computer implants or 3D printers that fix body parts, similar to what we see in Transcendence. In the movie, a lot of characters are also not okay with where the tech goes so quickly, and as is to be expected with Hollywood, what’s actually merely debates about tech in real life winds up being a physical, action-packed battle between the two sides.

Gradual progression of science and technology allows people to get used to the ideas, often without realizing they’re even getting used to new ideas. If what happens in Transcendence does come about in the next 30-40 years, we may slowly adapt to steps in that direction along the way. Similarly, if the movie had paced its events more slowly, more people would be buying the plot. Whether then they’d be excited or fearful of what’s to come would be up to them.

SEE ALSO: 'Transcendence' Is Johnny Depp's Fourth Box-Office Bomb In A Row

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