In 1962, Arthur C. Clarke famously observed that “any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” This observation is both brilliantly true and wildly overblown: After all, for many of us, even the most basic technologies, even those hundreds of years old, are still nearly supernatural. While Google’s reach is surreal in its speed and breadth, and the GPS terrifying in its geographical omniscience, in the end, they have the same origins as an 18th-century watch. They were built by men, and they can be taken apart by men.
Clarke’s observation was a liberating one for purveyors of speculative fiction, and not in a good way. Just as William Goldman’s aphorism that “nobody knows anything” about what makes a movie successful perversely freed Hollywood producers from a sense that they would probably be better off making something good than something bad, Clarke freed his fellow science-fictionists from the limitations that are actually necessary for the construction of a believable plot.
Science fiction works when it features a realistic extrapolation from the present. The introduction of magic is the death of any credible storyline, because it alters the basis on which the story has operated up to that point. It gets the storyteller out of a jam, but it violates the essential contract between him and the person to whom he is telling the story.
This is why the promising new Johnny Depp movie Transcendence turns out to be such a disaster. Depp, a brilliant scientist, has been working on developing artificial intelligence in a Berkeley lab, where some other guy is doing something to a monkey. There’s a Luddite conspiracy at work, and it manages to poison the monkey scientist while Depp is delivering a TED talk about how men will soon become like gods.
Then one of the Luddite terrorists shoots Depp with a bullet laced with radiation. Death is certain. But it turns out that the monkey scientist had actually figured out how to upload the monkey’s mind into a computer, and Depp’s grief-stricken wife decides she can do the same for Depp’s mind.
So Depp now resides inside a computer—only, because of the Internet, he can go anywhere. The standard-issue result of the too-smart computer is that it poses a threat to mankind through its manipulation of other computers. You can see where this is going. But movies have been going there since Colossus: The Forbin Project (1970), which was the kind of provocative but cheap B-movie sci-fi I grew up on in the days before special effects.
Then things start to happen that could never, and will never, happen. In a matter of weeks, Depp’s computer has somehow arranged for the construction of a gigantic underground lair in a dumpy desert town, using a workforce of about six people and without anybody in Washington knowing it’s going on. I’m talking about hallways two miles long, with thousands of servers, hygienic operating rooms, elevators, and all kinds of things it would take years to build.
And not just that. Suddenly, Depp the Computer has mastered the field of nanotechnology, because he’s just so smart. One of his workers nearly dies; Depp heals him with nanites. While he does so, he also “networks” the worker’s brain with his own. And then he does the same to other people. They can lift things that weigh 800 pounds and run 100 miles an hour. And Depp can inhabit their bodies. And resurrect them from the dead. And control them like robots.
How does being part of a networked computer translate into suddenly being able to make the dead rise? The answer, in Twitterspeak, is “because nanotechnology.” Transcendence goes from being a cautionary tale about overreliance on computers to a witless fantasy in which all the elementary rules go out the window. As depicted here, nanotechnology is not “indistinguishable from magic.” It’s just magic with more letters.
Intermittently a great actor, Johnny Depp walks through this thing as though he were a robot—though one controlled not by any higher intelligence, but rather by his $20 million paycheck. After sitting through this stinker, I felt like I deserved $20 million in compensation. I blame Arthur C. Clarke.
John Podhoretz, editor of Commentary, is The Weekly Standard’s movie critic.