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Christina Bieber Lake


A Creepy Alternative to Resurrection

Why "Transcendence" falls flat.

While millions of Christians around the world were observing Good Friday services on April 18th, hundreds of thousands of Americans went to the theater for the opening day of the movie Transcendence. The movie features Jack Paglen's screenplay about the dying scientist Will Caster, whose wife downloads his consciousness into a computer. Once there, he is able to perform miraculous feats with nanotechnology, including healing the blind and the lame. Eventually he attains his own bodily resurrection (by way of regeneration) and provides the promise of the same to everyone else.

Whether intentional or not, the Good Friday juxtaposition is jarring. During Easter weekend the Christian story of redemption through the death and resurrection of Jesus was pitted awkwardly against the central and driving hope of transhumanism: that one day we will be able to live forever. And not only that, we will live forever in constantly renewable bodies on a planet that reverts to Eden-like purity through our technological expertise. These are the real dreams of the likes of Ray Kurzweil and other transhumanists who are doing everything they can to stay alive long enough for their dreams to become reality.

Unfortunately, Transcendence does very little to illuminate the core issues that lie at the heart of these competing stories of resurrection. Instead, it trades in sci-fi clichés and seems oddly unable to decide whether the transhumanist dream is actually a nightmare. But failures can be instructive, and that is the case here.

The story begins when a neo-Luddite terrorist group attacks several computer scientists who are at work on AI. We find out later that they are especially disturbed by the success of one scientist in copying a monkey's consciousness into a computer, and thereby giving the monkey a kind of immortality. The terrorists shoot Dr. Will Caster (Johnny Depp) with radiation-poisoned bullets, but he is able to live just long enough for his equally brilliant wife Dr. Evelyn Caster (Rebecca Hall) to transfer his consciousness the same way as the monkey's had been. She is overwhelmed to discover that it works. Against the warning of their colleague and friend Max (Paul Bettany), she hooks the new Will up to the Internet. For some reason having to do (I assume) with the powers of cloud computing, in a couple of years he is able to make astonishing advances in technology, all while "living" with his wife in a creepy way in their new undercover home. (Imagine your every move being watched by a larger-than-life screen spouse who can do nothing but comment and ask questions. The horror!) Eventually she becomes suspicious that the new Will is not really the old Will, especially when he creates an army of hybrid people that he heals, enhances, and hooks into his network. She finally agrees to carry a virus with her to destroy him/it. The movie ends in a twist … that I will return to later.

Besides the obvious problems here with a plot too eager to transcend its own limits (nanotech particles rising from the ground to reconstruct broken things?), the real problem is more fundamental. You would expect a film about AI and the idea of downloading human consciousness to address the central question of what makes a particular human being this or that particular human being. But Transcendence manages oddly to skirt around this question in a number of ways. First, its plot acquiesces to what Kathryn Hayles has said makes us posthuman: that "life" is defined by information patterns (the data of consciousness) and not by our embodiment. The closest the film comes to addressing that fundamental disconnect ends up being comical. Evelyn's first real freak-out moment in her relationship with the new Will comes when he remarks on her mood, saying something like "my dear, your oxytocin and serotonin levels appear to be unbalanced." Showing her these levels on the monitor becomes the technogeek version of "are you on your period?"—and evokes the deserved response.

Even more fatally, the film sacrifices the real questions of embodiment to provide its final plot twist. From the beginning we are led to be very suspicious of the new Will, especially because we first meet the old Will while he is constructing a garden designed to prevent Internet signals from getting through. He also has a tattoo on his wrist that says "unplug." So when Max points out that it is not like the old Will to be back for fifteen minutes and then want to get connected to Wall Street, the audience knows what we are supposed to do. And that is to freak out in recognition of this new life form. "It's Hal! It's the Terminator! Run!" We spend the whole middle section of the film rooting against the new Will, and we are led to do so right up to the final twist: after Evelyn sacrifices herself by allowing herself to be uploaded with the virus into Will's network, in her new cognitive capacity she is able to see that it really WAS Will all along. All that he ever wanted to do was to find a way to be with his wife in the garden he made. He can do that now, and, as a bonus, he is also able to realize her dream of making the world a better place (except, alas, he got a virus). They die, but the viewers see that the data bits required to resurrect them are still out there—in the very same garden of course.

This twist is disastrous. Putting aside all of the (merely) technologically complicated issues of transferring human consciousness into a machine, the film gives us no insight into what happens to the "real" Will Caster. Did he just get creepy because he suddenly had so much power? If so, why would he recognize that fact at the end and appear redeemed to his wife? If there was a moment when that happened, I certainly missed it. Furthermore, is it possible to evolve to be more moral because you are now embodied in a network of machines? Omniscience = morality = God? Or, were we just naïve in seeing the new Will as creepy because of our human limitations and prejudices? If the desired interpretation is the last one, and I suspect that it is, then the film is a truly horrifying acquiescence to the central fantasy of transhumanism: that the answer to all of our problems is to "fix" faulty human nature once and for all. That fix will occur when we get out of the way of technology and abandon our fears. In other words, we have to get over our antiquated notions of human nature in order to evolve. To transcend.

Martha Nussbaum's brilliant essay "Transcending Humanity" dismantles this fantasy and thus explains why the movie was destined to tank. Nussbaum analyzes Odysseus' choice to say no to Circe's offer of immortality. His decision to return instead to his mortal wife is the only satisfying choice for readers because it is the only one that is comprehensible to a person who remains a human being. "Do we wish for him a good result that involves a transformation so total that he might not remain himself?" asks Nussbuam. No, she argues—and we shouldn't. The kinds of transcendence possible for human beings, if they want to remain human beings, are the only kinds of transcendence that will be ultimately satisfying for human beings. This argument is not as tautological as it appears to be. It is an argument about what kind of life a human being can expect to find truly satisfying. And Transcendence (perhaps unwittingly) illustrates that becoming a god who meets up with other gods in the land of nanoperfection is not that kind of life. Back to the drawing board we should go—or better, back to the open tomb.

Christina Bieber Lake is Clyde S. Kilby professor of English at Wheaton College and author of Prophets of the Posthuman: American Fiction, Biotechnology, and the Ethics of Personhood, recently published by the University of Notre Dame Press.

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