Making the Grades
The explosion of technology with its Internet social networking sites, surveillance capabilities and instantaneous access to information may be making the world smaller. But with that comes a niggling worry we’re on the brink of creating something we can’t control.
In the not-so-futuristic movie Transcendence, quantum computers and nanotechnology are changing the way people interface with electronic devices. Among the leaders of these new scientific advancements is Dr. Will Caster (Johnny Depp). He is on the verge of finding a way to upload the human brain and create an operating system that will transcend the present capabilities of man and machine.
However, not everyone agrees with his experiments. An anti-technology group knows as R.I.F.T. attempts to cripple his work, as well as similar efforts by others, through terrorist acts. In a carefully orchestrated attack, the organization kills or maims scientists in computer labs across the country. Then, following one of Will’s speaking engagement, an assailant shoots and wounds the doctor before turning the gun on himself. (These scenes contain explosions, poisonings and some bloody injuries, along with the shooting and suicide.) The assault leaves the learned man clinging to life. With Will’s death close at hand, his wife Evelyn (Rebecca Hall) begs him to let her and their friend Max (Paul Bettany) upload his consciousness before he dies.
If you’ve ever had trouble downloading a movie from an online source, you know this shouldn’t be as easy as this film makes it look. After screwing a few dozen cables onto Will’s bare head, Evelyn and Max simply sit back and watch thousands of lines of computer code scroll across the screen.
The first hint of trouble arises when the pixilated image of the doctor eventually appears on screen. Soon he begins demanding more operating system space and additional power—ultimately wanting to be uploaded to the Internet. Everyone but his wife seems to know this isn’t a good idea. Yet unlike the emotionless computer copy of her husband, she still has feelings and is willing to do almost anything for love.
During the first acts of the film, the script introduces a number of interesting scientific advancements that are under development right now. As in the movie, these will allow for all kinds of medical, financial and social evolutions—provided their use doesn’t get away from us. Transcendence raises the ethical questions of what might happen if they do. And the script is both engaging and thought provoking in that regard. Unfortunately trying to wriggle a love story into the impassionate world of technology doesn’t work and the movie’s conclusion ends up being highly improbable, even for a sci-fi.
Discussion Ideas After The Movie
Teaching ideas and topics to discuss about Transcendence.
A member of R.I.F.T. accuses Dr. Caster of creating his own god through technology. What drives the doctor to want to create an all-knowing intelligence? Is there danger in having intellect without emotion? What happens when the computer version of Will tries to empathize with Evelyn by analyzing the biological and chemical reactions in her body?
As his death approaches, Will says, “We fear what we don’t understand.” What does he fear about his death? Can the lack of understanding about technology or other scientific advancements make people leery of them? In this story, how does the ability to try new things get ahead of understanding their ethical consequence?