Cinema’s relationship with technology is complicated. Though the high tech of the moment makes for a snazzy narrative (at least until the cell phones get dated)—it brings with it a healthy veneer of skepticism. Perhaps that’s a natural reflection of behind-the-scenes growing pains that have accompanied Hollywood’s own technological leaps from Technicolor to digital. (It’s a long history; when talkies swept popular imagination in 1927, studios scrambled to dub dialogue over existing silents to meet box office demand, a marketing strategy given the evocative nickname “goat glanding.”) Of course, after every groundbreaking innovation comes a period of unrest and sometimes-rocky change. And there’s no technological advancement that puts obsolescence front and center like artificial intelligence, and its one-two punch of questioning technology and defining humanity.
From Metropolis to Blade Runner, science fiction crawls with AIs investigating themselves and determining what humanity remains. (Relative hopelessness is often determined by how much humanity they can salvage; to become fully machine is, almost always, to lose.) AIs absent of humanity often present exercises in Otherness: War Games’ unfeeling WOPR became a nuclear parable; Ghost in the Shell’s Puppet Master yearned to lose itself in humanity. And more than one franchise used AIs to denote a shift in genre: The Terminator began as an implacable enemy, mowing down innocents; in the sequel, he was assigned human traits by young John Connor, an object lesson in absentee fatherhood. Ash nearly strangled Ellen Ripley on company orders in the horror flick Alien; in the action-movie sequel, synthetic Bishop nearly died trying to save her.
A third approach to AI literally domesticates technology: AI as relationship metaphor, fully capable of love but—wouldn’t you know it—incapable of making it work. This machine carries the familiar otherness of anyone who lives outside ourselves, and any failings in their programming is a stand-in for what anyone can be without. It’s happened recently, with more reflection on the humans than the AIs: both given intimate stakes (the irrationally-jealous meatspace boyfriend of Her) and devastating ones (overwhelmed mother Monica who leaves A.I.’s David alone in the wood).
Opening this week, Transcendence presents an earnest, middle-of-the-road technothriller in which two supposedly-dueling moral imperatives—the benefits of artificial consciousness versus the necessary curtail of potential abuse—are caught in a fight that’s pretty much settled the first time anti-tech cultist Kate Mara monologues about her time in an AI lab. However, while it might leave some stones unturned in its narrative about abuse of technological power, Transcendence does manage to present a handy parable of a marriage slipping quickly into abusive decay.
At first, Will Caster presents his transcendence to his wife Evelyn as a partnership, promising they’ll build a better future together. (Given that Evelyn initially uploads Will above his protests, and doesn’t listen to male friends about the dangerous new Will, her suffering is unfortunately, if accidentally, framed as a renewable regret.) Soon she’s isolated from friends; he demands she be thrilled with developments to which she never agreed; he manipulates his remote-controlled nanotech-enhanced employees to make romantic overtures that are clearly unsettling and unwanted. His claustrophobic supervision of her is framed as an indicator of his enforced distance, of unemotional Otherness, but his surveillance is a decidedly present act of control. (More than once she looks up at outside surveillance cameras as if gauging her chances.) And when the bottled tension finally explodes, Will’s argument against her anger isn’t that of a fathomless intelligence, but rather an attempt to trump her feelings with what he considers impartial logic. His listing of her biometrics—breathing fast, agitated—isn’t a disinterested diagnostic so much as it is a prey animal being assessed by a predator gone cold. He’s become a machine; they both lose.
Near the movie’s end, an avatar of Will kneels by her side, and when she asks if he’s now just a function of the grid, he promises her it was really him all along. It’s a haunting sentiment that echoes like a minor key underneath the love theme—an all-too-human admission that something’s badly wired.