Of Hollywood and Hobbits: The Reactionary Politics of 'Transcendence'

Of Hollywood and Hobbits: The Reactionary Politics of 'Transcendence'

Only Hollywood would make a movie in which the end of the Internet–indeed, the end of electricity itself–is treated as a happy outcome. Oh, sorry, was that a spoiler of sorts? Well, not really, because that happy ending is shown in the very first scene of the movie; everything we are about to see in the film is a flashback.

In any case, the storyline of “Transcendence” is anything but transcendent; it’s likely to seem familiar–very familiar. Indeed, it’s a vaguely Frankensteinian melange of such past films as “Donovan’s Brain,” “Colossus: The Forbin Project,”“The Fly,” and about a million other good-inventor-gone-bad sci-fi shows.

“Transcendence” stars Johnny Depp as a computer scientist who is on the edge of big breakthroughs in artificial intelligence–the idea of curing cancer and Alzheimer’s is mentioned–when he is mortally wounded by a Luddite eco-terrorist’s bullet. In his remaining few days, his wife and best friend download his living brain into a computer so that when he dies, he can be resurrected, as it were, as a computer avatar.   

Such a man-machine fusion seems inevitable, and, in the case of saving the mind of a genius who can save others, the idea seems downright desirable. Back in 1993, the science fiction writer Vernor Vinge described this forthcoming fusion as “The Singularity,” and that name has stuck. In Silicon Valley, there’s even a Singularity University, focusing on all aspects of technological progress.  

Yet in this movie, nothing good comes out of progress. The Depp-download character quickly turns malevolent, and so his wife and best friend–make that former best friend–resolve to switch him off. Indeed, in that unplugging effort, they are joined not only by the FBI but also by the same Luddites who shot Depp in the first place. That’s right: in Hollywood’s worldview, the government and the radical greens are properly on the same side, fighting against advancing technology. 

Okay, so “Transcendence” is only a movie, and one shouldn’t allow oneself to get too worked up over movies. Yet still, in a perverse way, the film stands out, because it is so utterly reactionary in its outlook. Yes, Hollywood chooses to pride itself on its “progressive” politics, but as movies such as this suggest, the real mindset is deeply regressive.