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Does 'Transcendence' have a soul?

Johnny Depp in "Transcendence".
Johnny Depp in "Transcendence".
© Warner Bros.



There are four main aspects to the science fiction film genre: the cool, the cautionary, the comedic, and the cerebral. Some science fiction films are more action than anything. These films don't really focus on any kind of philosophical questions that advancements in technology may provide, but more feature future technology only specifically related to showing off some kind of cool new weapon. The kind of movies that do ask these questions often are cautionary tales.Then there are science fiction movies that are there more for comedy than anything. I think this is the least explored aspect of science fiction in film. It is explored more on television than on film. The final aspect is the cerebral aspect. Many science fiction movies are there to make you think.

Science fiction movies often deal with similar themes and stories. One such frequently appearing story is that of the artificial intelligence becoming sentient or self-aware. Can an artificial intelligence have emotion? Can an artificial intelligence perform actions without being commanded to do so? When does an artificial intelligence stop being artificial? What happens to the world and to humanity when this happens?

Movies from "2001: A Space Odyssey" to last years "Her" have dealt with these kind of questions. "2001: A Space Odyssey" deals with science fiction in a more purely dramatic and philosophical fashion. Well, it also leans towards horror or a cautionary tale as well. Stories like those found in "Her" or the comic book "Alex + Ada" are both philosophical and romantic. "Blade Runner" and its source novel "Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?" offer up philosophy and mystery in a noir setting. Movies like "Terminator 2: Judgement Day" ask the same artificial intelligence questions in an action setting. The "Ghost in the Shell" movies and television series do this as well.

The point is that the same science fiction themes and stories are being addressed and told over and over again in many different ways. The reason these same stories being done over and over again can still work is because the creators of these stories keep finding new approaches and new settings to make the stories seem fresh. They also work because the questions are still questions. There aren't always clear and easy answers to the questions raised in these stories so the questions are still open for discussion.

"Transcendence" is the latest science fiction film to address the issue of whether or not artificial intelligence can become self-aware. The movie asks the question of whether or not an artificial intelligence can have a soul. The better question is whether or not the movie "Transcendence" has a soul. Let's examine the facts.

"Transcendence" inflicted pain upon me constantly for 119 minutes. The movie showed no signs of guilt or any kind of reluctance to continue torturing me. While I cannot speak for the condition of the rest of the audience, I will say that there were other people in the theater watching this movie. Potentially, "Transcendence" caused harm not just to me, but to multiple people.

So, how did "Transcendence" harm me? Basically, it ignored everything that makes a story like this work. As I have said before, a story involving artificial intelligence becoming sentient is nothing new. It has been done many times, but the reason it seems to continue to work is that it has been done in many different ways. "Transcendence" chooses to offer nothing new in the way in which it approaches this material. There is no twist to this already familiar plot. The plot plays out exactly as expected with all the same questions being posed that have been addressed in these other stories. Actually, I'm not sure much of any question is posed in this movie at all.

"Transcendence" doesn't seem to have anything to say or anything to ask. In the movie, we are led to believe that artificial intelligence becoming self-aware is bad. However, we are never given any reasons as to why that would be. Other stories have provided reasons, but this one did not even bother to address that. I suppose there is something about the particular artificial intelligence in this movie having too much power, but no one ever makes any such comments on that and the A.I. in this movie never seems to do anything abusive with its power.

At one point in the movie, there starts to be a plot involving the resurrection of people who have died. Now, there may be things wrong with resurrecting the dead, but the movie again does not ever address any of this. It does imply that this kind of resurrection is bad, but it never actually addresses any of the reasons why this is so. Everything in "Transcendence" is like this. Its story follows the typical artificial intelligence story outline that has been set by many other previous stories, but it doesn't add anything to it or inject any kind of its own emotion into it. This brings us back to the real philosophical question of the movie: does "Transcendence" have a soul?

Well, I don't think it ever showcases much real emotion. I mean, it attempts at having some kind of romance in the story. There is an attempt at a showcase of love. However, it is the barest minimum showcase of what love is that has clearly been regurgitated from other love stories. There is nothing unique to this showcase of emotion. The emotions in this movie may as well have been text accessed from a computer database. It is more like a computer reading examples of love than anyone actually expressing it in their own unique way. I suppose you could say that it is just actors reading from a script and not true characters expressing their emotions.

The ending of "Transcendence" is one that I predicted long before it actually happened. I mean that I predicted it right down to the very final shot of the film. I knew exactly what was going to be shown. I am only bragging a little bit when I say this. I more importantly say this to show that "Transcendence" once again did nothing that could not have been accessed from a previous movie script, novel, comic book, poetry or short story collection, song lyric, television show, or video game. There is nothing in "Transcendence" that proves it is unique. In fact, "Transcendence" provided one of the most empty experiences I have ever had at a movie theater.

So, in conclusion, I would like to argue that "Transcendence" does not have a soul. "Transcendence" is an empty vessel. I have had more fulfilling conversations with Artificial Intelligence such as the iPhone's Siri. "Transcendence" is emptier and more without a soul than the average computer. At least a computer would have a more comprehensive knowledge and access to similar yet much more fascinating science fiction stories. "Transcendence" tortured me with its lack of worth and even then it didn't seem to have a purpose in doing so. After it was over, it just cut to black and was never seen again. Well, never seen again by me, hopefully.

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