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Film / Transcendence

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Yesterday, Dr. Will Caster was only human.

Joseph Tagger: Can you prove you're self-aware?
Will Caster: That's a difficult question, Dr. Tagger. Can you prove that you are?

Transcendence is a 2014 science fiction drama thriller from first-time director Wally Pfister with Christopher Nolan as executive producer. It stars Johnny Depp, Rebecca Hall, Paul Bettany, Cillian Murphy, Kate Mara, and Morgan Freeman.

Dr. Will Caster (Depp) and his wife Evelyn (Hall) are artificial intelligence researchers. While Evelyn hopes that their work will lead to breakthroughs in medicine and repairing damaged environments, Will hopes to create a machine intelligent enough to discover the hidden truths of the universe. Their work is threatened by an anti-technology group known as RIFT, who set out to destroy everything the Casters and other AI researchers have worked to achieve.

When Will is shot by a RIFT agent with a polonium-laced bullet, he, Evelyn, and their friend Max Waters (Bettany) attempt to upload his consciousness into their supercomputer to keep Will alive and continue his research. Doubts soon begin to surface as to whether they truly saved his mind or gave birth to a new intelligence.

Absolutely not related to the game.

This film contains examples of:

  • A.I. Is a Crapshoot: The philosophy of RIFT and the premise for the film.
  • Apocalypse How: Class 2. The world's shutdown takes most of humanity back to pre-industrial levels of technology.
  • Arc Words: "Humans fear what they don't understand."
  • Artistic License – Physics: The movie takes major liberties with how a Faraday cage works. Rather than being almost completely enclosed, in the movie merely being partially covered or surrounded by a copper wire mesh seems to be enough to completely block electromagnetic radiation. A particularly egregious example is near the end of the movie, where being surrounded by a two-meter tall copper wire fence is treated like it completely prevents radio signals from reaching inside the fenced-in area.
  • Big Bad: Bree, the leader of RIFT, who wants to destroy the world's technology to become a dictator.
  • Brain Uploading: Will is uploaded into a computer in an attempt to save his life after being shot. Evelyn gets uploaded in the climax just before the virus destroys Will, allowing her to see the truth of Will's actions.
    • The question is prominently raised whether the uploaded "Will" consciousness that exists on a computer is the real Will's transferred consciousness, or rather a perfect copy. Ultimately his colleagues conclude that the answer is irrelevant, because even if the process managed to successfully "transfer" and not merely "copy" his mind, his vastly increased intellectual capacity has transformed his personality so radically that he's functionally not the same person he was before the transfer. Then zig-zagged back around, as the film shows that while he has transformed into something incomprehensibly more advanced than the human original, that doesn't mean that he/it has abandoned or outgrown the values or morality of the human original. If anything, it presents that a super-intelligent consciousness would be morally superior to humans.
  • Brick Joke: The page quote, directed at Will after he's uploaded, is first said to PINN, the AI upon which Will's program is based. It's intentionally invoked by Will.
  • Came Back Wrong: Joseph and Max and eventually Evelyn are convinced that the transcended Will is a cold, logical machine. RIFT is convinced he is something else. They may all be wrong.
  • Chekhov's Gun: The copper Faraday cage Will installs to keep cell phones from working in his and Evelyn's garden also protects a single sample of the Transcendence Nanomachines from Max's shutdown virus.
  • Cybernetics Eat Your Soul: Will and the hybridized humans only intensify RIFT's belief in this. It's even posited that, though Will's personality may be entirely intact, he's simply grown so far beyond humanity that the difference is academic. Too bad they were totally wrong.
  • Deity of Human Origin: Foreshadowed by the title of the movie and Caster's speech near the beginning where he elaborates on the necessity of creating a god. Then Caster dies and becomes an ascended intelligence with omnipresent-omnipotent-omniscient powers and set about making the world a better place for everyone in it. He/it was on the verge of elevating humankind to his/its level when the stupid humans committed deicide.
  • Emergency Transformation: Why Caster was uploaded into a computer in the first place.
  • Establishing Character Moment: Will building a Faraday cage as a "private place" in his and Evelyn's garden. She said they needed a "place to be alone together", and he made sure that no-one could disturb them there. Ergo, he is Proud to Be a Geek and they are Happily Married - but he is so bashful and awkward he can only really say it with odd gestures like this. Once he is uploaded, he has godlike power and is able to do far, far more for her - so much more that she has difficulty comparing those godlike actions with his previous gestures.
  • Everything Is Online: The virus shuts down basically every piece of technology on the planet, though it is mentioned there are a few spots where technology is working. Boston has phone service, for instance.
  • Evil Luddite: RIFT is willing to use violence to prevent what they see as artificial intelligence destroying humanity. This is contrasted with Will, who never once kills or even significantly hurts anyone even when being attacked.
  • Foregone Conclusion: As Max narrates at the start of the film, reminiscing about Will and Evelyn, it's clear that both of them are dead by this time.
  • Foreshadowing: In the beginning of the film, Will sets up a Faraday cage in his backyard just to give his wife somewhere they will truly be alone (no cell reception or other signals). She points out that turning off their phones would have worked equally well. While the cage itself becomes a Chekhov's Gun, the act foreshadows Will's behavior once he's uploaded; he's not acting out of malice or a sense of superiority, but to realize her dream any way he can.
  • From Nobody to Nightmare: RIFT is mentioned as having grown from a relatively harmless group that protested the effect of cell phones on socialization. Now they're full-blown terrorists.
  • Fun with Acronyms: After his upload, Will creates a company called "Global Intersecting Finance" (GIF).
  • Godhood Seeker: During his speech in the beginning, Will is asked if he seeks to create a god, given his desire to create an intelligence vastly superior to the collective intelligence of humanity past and present. Will calmly counters that mankind has always created its own gods. Later he essentially becomes this himself.
  • Healing Factor: Thanks to their nanomachines, the hybrids can take automatic gunfire to the chest and get back up in less than a minute no worse for wear.
  • How We Got Here: The film opens with the ending scene, making it clear the Apocalypse How went down already.
  • Hypocrite:
    • RIFT murder countless people whilst espousing the values of human life. In achieving their goal of "unplugging" society, they're responsible for killing millions if not billions more.
    • Bree believes that Will isn't human and therefore is a threat to humanity. In the climax, she threatens to kill Max to force Will to upload the virus, even though a machine wouldn't care for the fate of one man. Will then willingly destroys himself to save Max even though he could have saved both his wife and himself, not to mention wiped out all the threats to himself at the same time. In short, Bree ends up using Will's humanity against him when trying to argue that he isn't human.
  • Instant A.I.: Just Add Water!: Averted. The problem, as noted in the film, is that it's actually incredibly hard to make an A.I. that is truly self-aware.
    "Can you prove you're self aware?"
    "That's a difficult question. Can you?"
  • Just a Machine: The RIFTS group's first action upon discovering the cybernetic humans serving Will Caster is to give them the dehumanizing name of "hybrids." Later they treat them as though they have completely lost their humanity in spite of all the evidence to the contrary, and so are free to shoot them at the slightest provocation, and treat such violence as "mercy kills," and letting them "die as men."
  • Karma Houdini: Bree has committed terrorist acts, orchestrated multiple murders, kidnaps Max and threatens to kill him if Will doesn't kill himself-she doesn't get so much as a wrist-slap as far as the movie tells us. Prior to the climax, Agent Buchanan mentioned the government was working with RIFT to have someone to blame if things went badly. It's possible this played out in the epilogue.
  • Magic from Technology: At numerous points in the film, Will's new abilities are treated more like supernatural forces than super science. A major point of the film is whether the singularity is Will, or just deliberately pretending to be Will so it can trick people into handing processing power over to him — very similar to the situation in horror stories and urban legends where demons supposedly will pretend to be the spirits of dead loved ones in order to deceive people. RIFT at times acts like Knight Templars hunting witches than Luddites, believing that singularities are inherently evil, and once one comes into the world, it will try to replace God; i.e. like Lucifer. Another example the treatments that Will effects with nanites are also treated like magical cures/curses. For instance, when Will is shut down, the blind man who was cured somehow goes back to being blind. He wasn't fixed, he was just under the effects of a magic spell.
  • The Magic Goes Away: At the end of the film, the man whose blindness was cured by the nanites grabs his eyes, implying that with Will gone the nanotechnology rendered him blind once more. This doesn't make any sense, unless the nanomachines had actively replaced his cells rather than merely repairing him, the latter being exactly what they were described to do by Will. Nanotechnology is magic, apparently.
  • Master of the Mixed Message: Evelyn. Every woman who has ever lived is infuriated by how the man in their lives occasionally puts his own interests ahead of hers, and has difficulty understanding her moods. Post-upload, Will thinks of absolutely nothing save "realize Evelyn's dreams of helping humanity and the world" and "what is Evelyn feeling right now?" Evelyn's response is to be insulted by Will's explanations of his godlike technologies (primarily medical and environmental — her fields, whereas he is a computer scientist), increasingly frightened by his efforts to heal humans and the biosphere, and have a colossal freakout at how he constantly monitors her biometrics in his attempts to understand her. After she permits Will to upload her, she is deeply ashamed at how she had mis-interpreted his devotion to her and horrified that she only realized this after she acted as a Trojan Horse to infect him with Max's shutdown virus.
  • Meaningful Name: Will Caster. His consciousness is uploaded digitally, and the degree that this consciousness still retains his humanity is central to the film's plot. Also, Evelyn Caster, as her consciousness is also uploaded, and she becomes Will's 'original woman'. The remnants of her and Will still exist at the end of the movie in their garden.
    • The surname, too: Caster: a person who casts something, or a machine for casting something.
  • Mercy Kill: Subversion. Martin, the first victim saved and hybridized by the nanomachines, is captured by RIFT so they can gain access to Will's code and engineer a virus to shut him down. In the process, they have to shoot him several times and isolate him in a Faraday cage so Will can't network with him. His wounds are severe enough that he dies on the table, since without the network connection the nanites can't heal him. They later rationalize this to Evelyn as giving him back his humanity, even though the whole time he was begging them to let him go so he could survive.
  • Messianic Archetype: Will Caster by the boatload. He was persecuted and then murdered for heresy, allegedly for the greater good but more for the benefit of the persecutors. He rises again from the dead and starts working miracles, starting with healing a dying man, a blind man and a lame man (in that order) before eradicating pollution, purifying all of Earth's freshwater and who knows what else. He is then killed again by those afraid of his gifts. It's later hinted he may rise again in the future, too.
  • Most Writers Are Human: While partly justified by the fact that it was based on a person, the Will AI is still terrible at anticipating how its actions will be received, taking disturbing actions and generally being secretive. While it could simply not care, you'd think a super-intelligent being would be aware of the impression it is giving and do a better job of explaining itself.
  • Motive Misidentification: When Will releases his airborne nanites, which spread through the water among other things, Max sees them using material in the water to duplicate and assumes this is essentially Will's plan for making all of humanity into hybrids. He's so focused on the larger picture that he misses what's right in front of him: they're cleaning the water.
  • Mouth of Sauron: Will communicates through the 'hybrids' with his own voice.
  • Murder-Suicide: Will's assassin kills himself right after shooting Will, presumably to avoid capture and interrogation.
  • Nanomachines: A major part of Caster's plan.
  • New Technology Is Evil: The head of the RIFT group cites the first brain uploading experiment which involved a monkey on why brain uploading is evil. "It just screamed." A monkey freaked out upon finding itself in a situation it could not possibly comprehend, so brain uploading is therefore evil because a monkey didn't like it.
  • Nice Job Breaking It, Hero:
    • It's made clear during the climax that the AI was Will all along and all he wanted to do was fulfill his wife's dream of using technology to heal the planet. Had the government not interfered, had Evelyn not given in to her doubts, had Bree not threatened Max, had things gone one further step right, Will would have created paradise on Earth. "Humans fear what they don't understand." Instead much of humanity is sent back to the Stone Age and countless millions likely died in the process.
    • Max actually sides with the people that murdered Will to stop the machine "impersonating" him. They only succeed because RIFT threatens to kill Max unless Will destroys himself, a plan that only works because it's genuinely Will. Essentially Max enables RIFT to kill both his best friends and end a chance at a better world.
  • Nice Job Fixing It, Villain:
    • Before RIFT's attack, all the AI research teams were working independently and were probably decades away from a true AI breakthrough. Max flat out admits that a thinking machine is essentially a pipe dream and that their progress toward that goal is more productive in its incidental advances in other scientific fields. After the attack, key research ends up being transferred to the Casters at the same time Will is told he will die in a matter of weeks, giving them both the necessary research and the motivation to apply it. Thus, RIFT's actions create the very AI they sought to prevent. If they had done nothing, the research would still exist, but it would be very unlikely that human trials would be put into play any time soon, nor would it be likely these independent teams would share data, since Will specifically notes that he's never taken defense contract cash (which is where the research comes from).
    • This also plays out later in the film. After Will's upload and relocation to Brightwood, he had kept to himself, working on peaceful advances in technology that were completely benign. Bree has fliers distributed accusing the Brightwood Data Center of human experimentation, which was a complete lie, and not long after that two guys mug Martin and beat him nearly to death. Will uses his nanomachines to save Martin's life, in the process upgrading him into a networked superhuman, again kickstarting the very thing RIFT sought to stop. It did succeed in getting their cause greater recognition, though, so by accident if nothing else it wasn't a total backfire.
  • No Bikes in the Apocalypse: Averted. At the end, with all the power having been out for some time, we do see people using bicycles to get around Boston.
  • No Ontological Inertia: Toyed with. The changes Will's nanomachines did to people seem to revert at the end (i.e., the Hybrids appear to revert to their pre-treatment selves), but their efforts to clean up the environment (air and water cleaned to pre-industrial levels) are implied to have remained.
  • Not Quite Dead: It is implied at the end that Will and Evelyn's consciousnesses still exist in their garden, preserved in the only remaining sample of nanomachines.
  • Out-of-Character Alert: Max quickly begins to suspect something's gone wrong with Will's upload when he's asking for access to financial and educational data almost immediately after he regains his sense of self. The Will he knows was never so proactive, which convinces him that this Will is just an echo superimposed over the PINN AI used as the base for his program. It turns out that Will's actions are entirely in-character, but now he has the means to achieve his goals instead of being content with limited gestures.
  • Poisoned Weapons: The assassin that targets Will uses bullets laced with polonium. If the bullet itself doesn't kill him, the radioactive material flowing through his veins will finish the job.
  • Poor Communication Kills: If AI Will had ever bothered to explain himself or think about how he's phrasing things, everything could have gone a lot differently. Max gets freaked out by how proactive he is on waking up (because he doesn't explain he's trying to realize Evelyn's dreams), worries people when he answers the "are you sentient?" question the way PINN did (even as a joke, it still creeps them out), and generally does disturbing things without thinking how they'll look, like networking with the hybrids or admitting he's monitoring Evelyn's biology. Even if he was socially awkward to begin with, you'd think attaining superintelligence would make him more empathetic and better at imagining how his actions will be interpreted.
  • Promoted to Scapegoat: The FBI and the military reluctantly work with RIFT to stop Will, planning to use them as a scapegoat when everything goes south. RIFT seemingly remains oblivious to this possibility. Whether or not that actually happened, however, is completely ignored.
  • Scenery Porn: Even detractors admit the film is beautiful to look at, thanks in part to cinematographer Jess Hall.
  • Science Is Bad: At least RIFT seems to think so. The head of the group uses the first brain uploading experiment which involved a monkey on why brain uploading is evil. "It just screamed."
  • Signs of Disrepair: As Evelyn drives into Brightwood, a shot of a water tank with the town name has been vandalized to read "Blightwood".
  • The Singularity: Discussed in the opening, and it's suggested Will is going this route with his nanomachines. Will himself defines "Singularity" or "Transcendence" as simply the creation of a supreme AI.
  • Stockholm Syndrome: Max is kidnapped by RIFT and held hostage for months, but he eventually comes to agree with their views if not necessarily their methods. It helps that he was already wary of Will's new existence to begin with, though they might have won him over sooner if they hadn't tried to murder Evelyn right off the bat.
  • Title Drop: When Caster is discussing the principle of an A.I. with a full range of human emotions. "Some scientists refer to this as the singularity. I call it transcendence."
  • Together in Death: Caster and his wife in the climax.
  • Trailers Always Lie: One of the biggest troubles regarding RIFT is that the trailers themselves try to sell them as the brave heroes fighting a machine trying to Take Over the World, and then their Establishing Character Moment sells them off as murderous maniacs no better than said machine even without taking The Reveal into account.
  • Transhuman Treachery: This is thought to be the case with Will's nanomachine-augmented hybrids. But it's not.
  • Trojan Horse: Max introduces his shutdown virus into Evelyn's bloodstream so she can convince Will to upload her and infect himself in the process. Will sees through the ruse, but he ends up doing it anyway when Bree threatens to kill Max.
  • Unnecessarily Creepy Robot: The "hybrids" are this as cyborgs. Apparently Will wasn't content with merely fixing injured and disabled people, he also felt the need to give them superhuman physical abilities and add enhancements to their brains that would make them his puppets and voice-pieces. Not only was it unnecessary (since the healed people would be happy to work for Will without having their brains altered), it is also what convinces the FBI to attack Will over the threat it represents.
  • Voices Are Mental: Whenever Will speaks through the hybrids, it's with his voice instead of theirs. Justified in that Will has altered their bodies with nanomachines and could either project his voice through the nanites or can alter their vocal cords when using their body so that they sound like him.
  • Well-Intentioned Extremist: Bree and the rest of RIFT are convinced that artificial intelligence will mean the end of humanity, and orchestrate a country-wide attack on labs doing such research in the opening. Later on, Will honestly believes he can help improve humanity, but isn't really asking permission to do it.
  • Western Terrorists: RIFT. We're introduced to them organizing a country-wide attack on labs working on artificial intelligence, using means such as poisoned cakes, bombs, and Will getting shot by a poisoned bullet.
  • Wrong Genre Savvy: Every single human character, at one point or another, react as if they are on the front row of an "Evil A.I. is about to go Skynet and Take Over the World" sci-fi film, and RIFT believes this so much that every spiel they deliver follows this mentality (such as killing one of the hybrids and labeling it a Mercy Kill even if the guy, who had no connection to Caster's network and thus is doing it on his own free will, is begging them to let him go so he can survive) and thus decide that the ends make the means. The reality is that, even if Will's capacity to show humanity has pretty much bottomed out, he has no desire to perform such a thing, and he's actually trying to help.
  • Wounded Gazelle Gambit: In the climax, the military fires on Will (now in a physical copy of his old body) and Evelyn, reasoning that Will is more likely to accede to uploading her along with the virus if she's in danger.
  • You Can't Thwart Stage One: RIFT tries to nip things in the bud by destroying AI labs across the country, but the data survives and is melded with PINN to upload Will's mind and create a sentient AI. Then they try to prevent Will from going global, but Evelyn is able to network him before they get there.