Wally Pfister's Transcendence: Prometheus and the Murder of God

Melancholy: the sense that emancipation is an object better mourned than desired
— Alberto Toscano
All truth is a war against theology
— Nick Land
Image from Screenrobot

Image from Screenrobot

Wally Pfister’s Transcendence appears on the surface to be a conventional tale warning of the dangers of Frankenstein science, but it is actually much more ambivalent than a cursory look at the plot would suggest. The representation of the scientific ‘abomination’ and the ‘good’ humans who destroy it seem almost deliberately unconvincing. The contortions and twists of disavowal the viewer is dragged through in order to cheer the side of the human status quo have precisely the effect of leaving behind a strong case for the vanquished singularity, and the ending note of the film is one of overarching melancholy for a lost possibility, masked as a tragic love story, rather than one of victory. In Avatar, the mourning is for an atavistic organic unity, in Transcendence this mourning is for a missed future [1].

Hollywood individualism and disaster cinema

The film offers no clear moral position in regards to artificial intelligence, which is exemplary of neoliberalism’s short-sightedness with regard to big, long-term problems facing our species. All Hollywood can offer is trite theological vitalism and American exceptionalism, tropes we’ve seen endlessly before. According to this tired script, the problems we face today or in 10 to 20 years will be tackled - when they loom as monolithic boogeymen on the horizon - by plucky individuals whose main qualities are those of simply being amazingly human. Technology surpassing human intelligence and control, meteor strikes and climate change are reduced to singular cinematic showdowns: catastrophe as a Super Bowl event. Whether the event in question is climate catastrophe (The Day After Tomorrow), meteor strike extinction-events (Armageddon) or Transcendence’s AI, they can all be placated with Morgan Freeman’s calming certainty as the authoritative role of received common sense.

Image from Collider.com

Image from Collider.com

“We've Given Him Back His Humanity”

It is the threat to atomised individualism that makes the AI created by the uploading of the mind of Dr Will Caste (Johnny Depp) in Transcendence guilty of a capital sin. Government scientist Joseph Tagger (Morgan Freeman) forms a strange alliance with luddite terrorists in the film once it has been established that the AI is ‘evil’ because its ‘believers’ are inter-networked with each other and itself. This is a remnant of the deeply entrenched individualistic voluntarism of neoliberal capitalism: technology and progress are to be valued as good until they threaten the status quo of private enterprise; thereafter Morgan Freeman and his Men in Black will perform re-territorialisation with extreme prejudice [2]. It is this odd relationship between the government and the terrorists that portrays the disavowed, contradictory attitude to technology and progress that characterises the ‘common sense’ of the status quo. The terrorists, when they are portrayed unequivocally as evil extremists at the start of the film, make liberal use of technology to identify their targets in order to bomb and kill scientists before any AI technology had even been developed. There are no narrative musings on the limit where progress stops being beneficial and needs to be curtailed, besides vague mutterings on scientists ‘playing god’. 

Morgan Freeman’s character plays his usual trope of benevolent paternal figure, the embodiment of moderation and common sense. Given the amount of parody over these typical roles by Freeman the sense of irony here is palpable. He is a comically one-sided character who cannot justify his defence of ‘how things should be’ and whose kind demeanour does little to mask a complete lack of any believable grounding of his position towards the AI in the film. When the lead terrorist Bree (Kate Mara) is given a chance to explain why she joined the terrorists, she can only describe an incident from when she worked as a scientist with Dr Caster that involved hearing the screams of a primate’s uploaded brain state as being the cause of her certain belief that “she had crossed a line”. It is perhaps the flimsiest explanation in an already flimsy script. This is significant, all that seems to ground the state and the terrorists is a problematic common sense. The theologically transcendent idea of the human as an ahistorical given is the guiding foundation of this common sense. Any deviations from this position are to be considered abominations, completely ignoring our greater natural history as a species.

The practical example of this position is a scene where the AI-altered foreman is captured by the terrorists and forcefully disconnected from the healing powers of the AI that causes him to die from his wounds. After his death as a result of her actions, Bree states with complete moral certainty: “We've given him back his humanity”. Death, such an adorable part of the human experience!

Image from Apnatimespass.com

The Virtual God

This ‘playing god’ concept is key, as the film is more about the fear of human sin, resurrection and the murder of a messiah than about the dangers of technology. It is also key to the film’s conflicted position on the AI, who is – surprisingly for a Hollywood film – a nuanced and complex yet consistent character. The AI is driven by Dr Caster’s love for his wife Evelyn (Rebecca Caster) and by an explicitly stated extension, the world that his partner and fellow scientist Evelyn wants to better understand and help – to create a technological singularity which promises a new step in civilisation. By transcending the limits of human subjectivity, the simple logic of competition, conquest and biological constraints, the protagonist becomes a god immanent in everything down to cellular level. There are utopian scenes of this process of transcendental explosion and cellular immanence, of the blind being made to see, of a toxic sludge in front of a fossil fuel power plant being regenerated with plant life. The culminating scenes of the AI’s transcendence and totalising subsumption into the world are beautiful glimpses of a techno-psychedelic utopia. There is a sense of over-arching love and benevolence to this immense power, the insight that a machine intelligence would be very alien, that inhuman does not necessarily mean human-hostile. 

The film portrays an almost too-perfect hive mind, with networked individuals that the AI can communicate with and act through at any time. This does leave unexplained questions of how those affected by the AI’s nanotechnology are changed in regards to free will and consent. The poor and the destitute are attracted to the AI’s promise of healing. They submit voluntarily to joining a hive mind that grants them health, superhuman strength via nanotechnology and networked interconnectivity. When the AI is destroyed, these people lose all of this and the reactions from those who had joined the hive mind once it is destroyed are of surprise and loss, rather than happiness at liberation. The only utterance is from a boy who states “but he never killed anyone” and overall one can hardly feel a sense of victory over an AI which is never portrayed as power-hungry or anti-human, even as its intelligence and power continues to increase to god-like proportions as the film progresses.

Although the human-centric status quo is maintained at the end of the film – the AI knowingly allows itself to be destroyed by the virus the terrorists implant in Evelyn when the choice comes down to unity with her or its own survival - it is never portrayed as evil or dominated by self-interest. The AI is consistent to the end in its dedication to Evelyn and its utopian project. It is the conflicted relationships of other characters to the AI that are glaringly inconsistent, Evelyn’s included. The ending note of the film is one of loss without catharsis, and in this sense the film operates more as a lamentation for lost futures. This tragedy leaves behind a stronger impression on the viewer than the triumphant 'victory of good over evil' ending so well-defined in mainstream films. It is also telling that at the end the film does not leave any doubt in Evelyn’s mind that the AI was Dr Caster and that it was motivated by its love for her. As the AI makes its final declarations to Evelyn, one is led to hope that the luddites in the film figure out the error of their ways and that some twist will make the regenerative intentions of the AI win in the end. But no, the status quo must be maintained, literally at whatever the cost and there is no gloating or joy at victory. As the film ends the cartoonish terrorist characters are completely forgotten, only an overarching sense of loss remains. 

Graham Harman’s exegesis of Quentin Meillassoux’s doctoral thesis [3] sums up Meillassoux’s argument of the possibility of belief in a god that does not yet exist, a virtual or potential god. Although this position sounds preposterous the argument makes sense when examined not from the position of what is likely but what is possible, leaving a philosophical position with room for human hope and promethean agency. 'God' here is intended as a philosophical concept of universal justice and freedom from suffering, indeed even death. Injustice and suffering currently exist Meillassoux tells us, and neither the stance of the atheist or the believer provides both space for hope AND human agency in eliminating suffering. Whether we call the possible source of the elimination of suffering and death ‘god’ or the labour of reason is inconsequential. This position opens up a future-oriented vision free from a theological nihilism that devalues the worldly in favour of the other-worldly or a bleak cynical atheism in the face of contemporary human destruction and injustice. As Brassier highlights in his talk on prometheanism and its critics, we should be wary of anyone who invokes a transcendental reason for human suffering human-caused injustice as either due to an original sin or a romanticised notion of human nature, which contradictorily must be both celebrated and condemned, but never radically altered or overcome [4].

Image from Joblo

Image from Joblo

Silicon Valley Voluntarism

The sense of a lost future in Transcendence works well in blatantly promoting Silicon Valley techno realism. This is the opposing viewpoint portrayed in the film which is just as problematic as the Luddite view. The villagers in the town where the AI’s labs are built are either portrayed as blind believers who seek out the modifications or as resentful, ignorant hicks. The clean, shiny surfaces of the labs and data-centres, the all-knowing intelligence and calming voice of Johnny Depp imploring us to just trust the expert benevolence of technological entrepreneurs whose magic will simply make suffering disappear. The world is at the mercy of this AI’s whims, brain-child of Dr Caster the misunderstood genius, when in reality new discoveries in advanced technologies are the product of generations of collaborative research, rather unlike the Silicon Valley founding myth of the solitary mad genius working in a garage. This is the other side of the coin and one cannot embrace either position comfortably, as one can only speculate on the type of technological disruptions the WASP brogrammers in San Francisco could actually bring about, given their propensity for macho ubertarianism and complete lack of political literacy.

Speculations

The film pulls back from examining the implications of the global tragedy brought about by this murder of god, however problematic this god is, by completely abandoning any attempt to investigate the relationship between inhuman artificial intelligence and humanity in order to exalt the personal love story between Dr Caster and Evelyn and so completely fails to make a synthesis in the opposition between the Frankenstein and techno-realist utopia. Individualism and magical voluntarism are a given in both sides of the story. While Transcendence only hints at utopian futures and inhuman intelligence, science fiction in general has much more to offer when investigating possible futures. 

In Kim Stanley Robinson’s Mars Trilogy, the collaborative scientific community operates in an extreme environment and this forms the speculative basis for a new form of society that unites the nomadic with the scientific, with complete socialisation of basic survival necessities. It would be unthinkable to deny anyone oxygen or food. It would be in just such a society that the emergence of recursively self-improving AI could possibly be best understood and grappled with, reducing the threat of powerful elites holding the control of such technology. In regards to truly alien intelligence Stanislaw Lem or Peter Watts’ novels speculate on just how alien and incomprehensible non-human intelligence and its motivations might be to us. Proceed with caution.

This is not the first time that mainstream Hollywood funding has worked to dilute the narrative of a potentially potent script, The Hunger Games and Elysium come to mind, with big action scenes working to vitiate the explosive political implications of the narrative. Taking example from the CCRU’s hyperstitions, Transcendence, for all its flaws, demonstrates how powerful mainstream science fiction works not only to highlight and explain the present better than any other genre, but how fiction can influence the present. Entire generations have been inspired by science fiction household names such as Star Trek and Star Wars. Imagine how Elysium would have been with a more radical message. Perhaps an Accelerationist project should work towards the creation and funding of more mainstream science fiction like this which captures popular imagination, and that provides hope that things could be different without diluting the political and social message.

References

[1] Fisher, M. (2014) "Terminator vs Avatar" in The Accelerationist Reader, 1st ed., Urbanomic Media Ltd., Falmouth: p. 337

[2] Deleuze, G. and Guattari, F. (1983) Anti-Oedipus, 1st ed., University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis: p. 222

[3] Harman, G. (2011) Meillassoux’s Virtual Future, continent., Vol. 1, Issue 2: pp. 78-91

[4] Brassier, R. (2014) "Prometheanism and Its Critics" in The Accelerationist Reader, 1st ed., Urbanomic Media Ltd., Falmouth: p. 467