With a dramatic Star Wars-esque narrative and 3D images of the constellations, Transcendent Man, perhaps the most theatrical documentary of the Tribeca Film Festival, begins. The documentary, directed and produced by Robert Ptolemy, focuses on the wildly futuristic ideas of Ray Kurzweil, inventor of the charge-coupled flatbed scanner and author of The Singularity is Near.
With the help of music reminiscent of the Da Vinci Code soundtrack, the documentary focuses on Kurzweil’s personal life as well as on the abnormal ideas of his prophetic book. Essentially, Kurzweil asserts that technology grows at an exponential rate such that humans and technology will blend together by 2029. While the ideas are certainly interesting, the explanations behind the theories are far from it. Ptolemy disappoints by either using footage of Kurzweil explaining his theories to live audiences, or doing the typical “documentary shot”-a close-up of the inventor sitting in an armchair in front of a monochromatic backdrop. The information is comprehensible, but the magnitude of the ideas being projected is difficult to take in.
Anecdotes of Kurzweil’s deceased father and footage of the inventor’s sorrow help make the documentary feel less overwhelming and a bit more like a mainstream film-a welcome change after 3D images of the galaxy or quantitative information. Yet, just as Kurzweil begins to seem like a real person rather than a slightly mad scientist, he ruins the moment by announcing that he intends to bring his father back to life. Kurzweil has saved an entire storage room full of his father’s possessions to feed to a computer in order to create a person as close to his father as possible. Cue the Twilight Zone theme music.
Ptolemy, fully aware of the skepticism surrounding his subject’s work, adds additional characters popping up throughout the film to try to make his theories sound more believable. These additions are mostly people of Kurzweil’s group-notable professors, other inventors, sci-fi fans-but in order to appeal to the average viewer in the audience wondering if this is all a joke, Ptolemy adds in popular celebrities as some sort of reassurance. Notable actor William Shatner completely supports Kurzweil and all of his ideas, especially the one about living forever, or extending life (interestingly enough, the ex-captain Kirk is 78 years old). Another significant appearance is that of singing sensation Stevie Wonder, who has been close friends with Kurzweil since his invention of the Kurzweil Reading Machine, which allows blind people to understand written text by having the computer read it out loud.
Kurzweil makes endless references throughout the film about how the combination of man and machine will enable humans to become gods, so it is only a matter of time before a religious confrontation appeared on the screen. Ptolemy spends less time on it that would have been expected, showing clips of Kurzweil speaking on air with a host of a religious radio station. What could have been the most interesting part of the film quickly becomes a passive religion versus science discussion. Shortly after, Kurzweil lectures at a Christian Association, but instead of the expected crosses and rotten tomatoes being thrown at him, the crowd cheered endlessly.
Mercifully, as the attention of numerous audience members wound down, so did the altogether dry film. Like just about every other documentary on earth, the final scenes of Transcendent Man were spent discussing the future-as if Kurzweil hadn’t spent an hour and a half talking about just that. “Does God exist?” Kurzweil said. “Not yet.” Cue the cast list and masses hurrying to exit the theater.