Indie Spotlight: Transcendent Man

By  · Published on March 6th, 2011

For a very important reason, Transcendent Man begins with death. It’s a theme that pervades the entire discussion of technology, the future, and the direction that humanity might be headed in. After all, it’s that fear of death that propels us forward to delaying it, and, if Ray Kurzweil has his way, defeating it.

If the idea of scientifically-created immortality (as opposed to the philosophical or Pearly Gate variety) seems outlandish, it’s only one of several put forth by Kurzweil in the film. Fortunately, it’s a movie about much more than just his predictions. It would be the dullest mind-blowing experience if it were, but instead of focusing too much on the science, the documentary creates a portrait of the man making the claims – complete with his failings and warmth.

One version is a genius inventor who created a way for the blind to read. The other is a man haunted by the spectre of his father and debilitated by the thought of his own end.

Having read Kurzweil’s “The Age of Spiritual Machines,” the detail gaps were filled in a bit, but knowing his work seems markedly unnecessary to following the movie. At a certain point, the information is meaningless. The list of hopes and prophesies for the future are a pure distillation of humanity, but it’s far more interesting to watch Kurzweil standing over his father’s grave or perusing the storage unit of his father’s effects to see the true personal anchor to that ever-elongating list.

As far as objectivity, this is firmly Kurzweil’s movie. He’s the main talking head, and his words are even blown up as kinetic typography to drive home the point (and to make the talking head element a bit more dynamic). There are counterpoints offered from brilliant minds, but not quite enough to bring things back to an even keel. Fortunately, it’s not nearly as one-sided as documentaries seem to have been since Michael Moore proved you could make money from sensationalism.

On the other hand, the film does a fantastic job of showing Kurzweil as having incredible insight into the next few decades and as being a sad sort of man who takes 200 pills a day. The result is an optimism for the future that feels a bit naive even if it’s rooted in some fairly strong scientific history.

As for the science, two debates are woven throughout, even though Kurzweil tends to get the most time to argue his view. The first is about whether the singularity – an event where human intelligence will be indistinguishable from the artificial kind that keeps trying to kill John Connor – will ever occur. The second is about whether or not it have positive, negative, or neutral ramifications. It’s nice to believe that we’ll be able to live forever and know kung fu with a download, but it’s not as nice to believe that robots will eventually view us as ants to crush under their metal heels. A few see it one way, a few see it the other, and Ben Goertzel (an endlessly watchable AI researcher that looks like David Cross with huge curly hair, a zebra-stripe cowboy hat, and infectious enthusiasm) thinks we just don’t know.

Every moment of Transcendent Man is about as compelling as it gets. It deals with a reality we face daily and extrapolates it through to the next forty years. If people in 1958 couldn’t quite yet see the internet, what is it that we can’t quite see yet?

It’s as good a question to ask on the outset of a documentary, and director Barry Ptolemy has teamed with the central figure most bombastically answering it.

Whether Kurzweil is a good salesmen of his ideas is irrelevant here because of how entertaining they are. He’s the intellectual equivalent of a Michael Bay explosion. That’s not meant to belittle the subject matter though. The answers he’s come up with lead to the kind of questions we’ve always asked ourselves, and they demand that we re-frame them to make sense of the world we live in currently.

There is never a dull moment here (although some of it seems put together oddly) in which experts like “Wired” co-founder Kevin Kelly, evolvable hardware researcher Hugo de Garis, and Segway inventor Dean Kamen agree, refute, add to, dismiss, bolster, or outright deny Kurzweil’s beliefs.

All of the conversations come together to create a rich, worthwhile conversation branching off and expanding exponentially (which Kurzweil would appreciate) to touch on ideas about religion, robotics, and where the two worlds seem to collide. Informative, challenging, surprisingly emotional, Transcendent Man is a forest created by heretical ideas that ends up focusing on the trees of how mankind will directly be effected by the things we build.

At its core is a man still welling up while admiring his father’s headstone and looking out on his own demise. Like all of us, he’s responding to that personal black hole moment. Unlike most of us, he chooses to replace it with a different future where science triumphs over flesh, intelligence expands faster than we can fathom, and death becomes obsolete.

Now who wants to live forever?

The Upside: Fascinating subject matter delivered plainly, compelling figures, and some interesting shots that make it feel truly cinematic

The Downside: A few questionable editing choices as far as the presentation of different talking head segments

On the Side: In keeping with the future of technology, the film is available for download through iTunes, but most likely won’t be hitting a theater near you. You can watch the trailer for Transcendent Man here.

Movie stuff at VanityFair, Thrillist, IndieWire, Film School Rejects, and The Broken Projector Podcast@brokenprojector | Writing short stories at Adventitious.