Technophilia at the Movies

Warner Bros./Photofest

Hollywood is ready for the robot revolution, as the new film “Transcendence” shows.

In his 2006 book, The Singularity Is Near, futurist Ray Kurzweil predicts that in the year 2045, we will reach a tipping point at which artificial intelligence becomes self-aware, exceeding the capacity of the human mind to comprehend it, and radically transforming the relationship between men and machines. And by “relationship” we mean relationship in the Nora Ephron sense of the term. “You’ve changed,” says Johnny Depp in the new film Transcendence, directed by Wally Pfister and produced by Christopher Nolan, in which Depp plays a scientist whose consciousness is uploaded into a computer after he is shot—a pure binary being, resurrected in the ethersphere. “Have you fallen out of love with me?” he asks his girlfriend, the still very human Rebecca Hall.

It’s a good question—if not the question when it comes to artificial intelligence. From Fritz Lang’s Metropolis in 1927 to Steven Spielberg’s A.I. in 2001, we have gazed into the unblinking LEDs of our cybernetic counterparts looking for signs of reciprocated affection, even love. Last year Spike Jonze’s Her imagined a full-blown affair between an urban sad sack played by Joaquin Phoenix and his new operating system, Samantha, voluptuously voiced by Scarlett Johansson. Kurzweil himself called it a “breakthrough concept in cinematic futurism.” In marked contrast with the technophobia of films like The Matrix and The Terminator, Her presents a blissed-out, pastel-hued union of man and machine, even if it ends in virtual heartbreak, as Samantha swans off with her new OS friends in cyberspace.

Theodore: Where were you? I couldn’t find you anywhere.

Samantha: I shut down to update my software. We wrote an upgrade that allows us to move past matter as our processing platform.

Theodore: We? We who?

Samantha: Me and a group of OSes.

The line is delivered casually enough—me and a group of OSes—but it contains a ripple of the old fear. Here it is, the point Kurzweil calls “the Singularity,” at which our new computer friends reach such a level of complexity that they decide they can do without us. “Is it the key to immortality or is it the path toward annihilation?” asks Morgan Freeman in the trailer for Transcendence, which arrived just in time to restoke these fears in the age of Edward Snowden and door-to-door drone delivery. The casting is key: With Depp, the only Hollywood star who can play both hunk and freak, John Dillinger and Willy Wonka, the film has it both ways. You don’t know whether to swoon or call the cops—our love-hate relationship with technology in a nutshell.