In 1818, around the time British “Luddites” retaliated against the textile industry’s increasing use of power looms, Marry Shelley published the first edition of Frankenstein, her horror parable spun from the 19th century’s plentiful scientific breakthroughs. A little under 200 years later, director (and Christopher Nolan’s longtime cinematographer) Wally Pfister makes his directorial debut with Transcendence, a thriller starring Johnny Depp as the app equivalent of Frankenstein’s Monster. Different technology — same technophobia.
As Shelley predicted through her literary proxy Victor Frankenstein, humanity never lets mishaps or moral ambiguity stand in the way of innovation. Nor does Hollywood miss a moment to skewer the technological future in the name of entertainment. Transcendence adds another notch to the legacy of “Evil Computer” movies, a 2.0 sub-genre that’s made room for sci-fi handwringers and paranoid thrillers while clinging to Frankenstein‘s brand of pseudo-science. The advent of computers in the ’50s and ’60s opened new doors for the technophobes and offered a great unknown within our reach. That made it terrifying, and more importantly for filmmakers, real.
The notion of achieving “realism” in a movie like Transcendence demands little to no fanfare. In the film, the consciousness of programming wiz Will Caster (Depp) is copy/pasted on to a super computer before his body keels over from radiation poison. He is “the cloud” version of Frankenstein’s Monster: alive, mighty, and unwieldy. It’s believable science for a chilling “What if?” scenario (until Will’s invisibility requires Transcendence to divert from logic and, ultimately, coherence).
The downside of today’s touch screen tablets and 100 GB hard drives the size of a pinhead? They don’t make great villains. It was Stanley Kubrick who maximized the photogenic qualities and haunting nature of old school cabinet computers with his vision of HAL 9000 in 2001: A Space Odyssey. The glowing red eye, the soothing voice of Douglas Rain, the logical, methodical execution of orders — HAL was a God-shaped brain without the human imperfections to muck it up. (Until it developed it’s own motherboard-complex and did just that.) Kubrick’s science fiction film remains the pinnacle of “Evil Computerdom,” because HAL never pursues a wicked course of action. Blame the strains of space travel, his distrust in his human companions, or mysterious forces surrounding his ship. But don’t blame HAL. He’s just following pre-programmed orders.
Kubrick wasn’t the only provocateur questioning the on-going entanglement of computers and human existence. A few short months before 2001, Mathematician Laurence N. Wolfe penned the story for “Ultimate Computer,” an episode of Gene Roddenberry’s original Star Trek series that pit Kirk, Spock and his crew against a A.I.-run Enterprise. Even on stardate 4729.4, no one can imagine a computer system prioritizing a mission over human life. Except Spock, who finds the entire throw down perfectly logical.
Colossus: The Forbin Project (1970) was one of the final hurrahs for bare bones, science-minded Evil Computer movies before Hollywood witnessed the blockbuster power of Jaws and demanded an immediate sea change. In tune to the paranoia thrillers of the era, Joseph Sargent’s minimalist thriller envisions a government backed supercomputer blowing past the technological singularity — so smart, its artificial intelligence eclipses anything a human could feed it. Meant to control defense missiles and bring about world peace, the “Colossus” computer seizes available power and rules humanity with an iron fist. Sargent had the luxury of filming a talky drama where potential could be a scare tactic. Rarely do we see Colossus display his pervasive powers, but we know he could at any moment.
The Seventies and Eighties turned turned Evil Computers into cyber-mustache-twirling villains. In Demon Seed (1977), the Proteus IV computer blackmails and impregnates Julie Christie in hopes of becoming human, while Tron (1982) imagined the power-hungry Master Control Program as a floating, red, pentagonal dictator. Capitalizing on video game fads, War Games (1983) featured a PVP deathmatch between a missile command interface and Matthew Broderick. One month later, the Man of Steel battled programmed drones and flailing USB cables in the demented Superman III. It would take a few years for personal computers to become a household staple, but by the end of the ’80s, everyone in America knew their potential — for evil!
Despite the technology becoming more miniscule and the tendrils clinging to data less tangible, contemporary Evil Computer movies yearn for a taste of that Frankenstein magic. Transcendence can’t settle for Colossus‘ subversive nihilism — the movie still needs a “bad guy.” Same with its predecessors; films like The Matrix, Resident Evil, Eagle Eye, and even Rob Cohen’s silly Evil Computer Pilots action flick Stealth depict widespread infiltration as a problem with a physical proxy worthy of punching in the face. With modern Hollywood inflating even the tiniest thematic detail, “Evil Computers” bump Kubrick & co.’s nightmares of “Computers That Are Evil” out of the conversation. To unearth true technophobia from within, try today’s headlines.