The immortal ambitions of Ray Kurzweil: a review of Transcendent Man

February 15, 2011

A documentary about Ray Kurzweil’s belief that technology could conquer mortality reveals the futurist’s emotional life but fails to question his bold claims.¬†Against a swirling montage of cosmic birth and destruction, and newsreel-style stills from his personal history, the celebrated inventor and futurist Ray Kurzweil sits in silhouette, contemplating death. He broods over mortality’s toll in waste and pain, and the hopelessness and loss that people must experience in their last moments of life. “It’s such a profoundly sad, lonely feeling that I really can’t bear it,” he admits. Then, cheerfully, he adds, “So I go back to thinking about how I’m not going to die.”

That opening sequence of Transcendent Man, the new documentary by director Barry Ptolemy that profiles Kurzweil and his ideas, neatly distills the sometimes jarring predictions and preoccupations of its subject. The film is about Kurzweil’s belief that within just a few decades technology will allow human beings to transcend the physical and intellectual limitations of their biology. It also paints Kurzweil as a brilliant man who has personally always risen above the skepticism and misunderstanding of his doubters.

Cleverly edited and entertaining, Transcendent Man is unfortunately also too starstruck and reverent toward Kurzweil for its own good. It wants in part to be a movie about ideas, but frustratingly, it refuses to truly challenge any of those it raises — whether supportive or critical of him. Given that the film’s theme is the salvation or destruction of the human race, its lack of commitment to a perspective other than innocent wonder is unsatisfying.