Transcendence: Johnny Depp’s Sci-Fi

transcendence_posterIs Artificial Intelligence a threat to the way we live our lives today? Perhaps not yet, but what happens if we take it to the next level, if computers are given the capacity not only to think, but to feel?

Set in a not-too-distant future, “Transcendence” explores the very real possibility that humans—in our attempts to create a better, more efficient, more self-sustaining world through technology—can go too far. For emotions are not always positive: doesn’t a machine that has the capacity for kindness also have the capacity for menace?

Wally Pfister, a renowned cinematographer making his feature directorial debut on the film, states, “I was struck by the power and the weight of the ideas in this story, which I think are very much on people’s minds right now.”

“Transcendence” proposes that we can achieve what’s been called singularity. Pfister comments, “As we define it for the film, singularity is basically the uploading of the human brain into a super computer: the duplication of every synapse, every neuron…every bit of activity in the brain goes into a machine, which then becomes sentient.”

The film seeks to exemplify the coercive nature of the machines we create and how they control us as a culture. It is a path one could argue we are already on, and the film endeavors to project where we could be in 10 or 20 years as revolutionary, exciting…and equally troubling.

Johnny Depp stars as the scientist who not only provides the breakthroughs to make singularity–transcendence—possible, but whose brain becomes its first test subject. “What I really found intriguing about this story was the idea that one man with a brilliant mind, a simple guy who adores his wife and does the crossword puzzle every morning, is able to take his expertise to the point where ego, power and passion could ultimately evolve him into something of a mechanical god.”

Producer Andrew A. Kosove found the subject matter equally fascinating when he read the screenplay. “I have always been interested in how advancing technologies impact people’s lives. I thought that the writer, Jack Paglen, posed the question beautifully as to what defines a person versus an inanimate object, and he wrapped it up in a big, exciting action thriller.”

Producer Broderick Johnson liked what he calls “the juxtaposition of an action thriller with a very emotional, relatable core—the collision of technology with the human experience. But the idea that a loved one could be uploaded into a computer and you could then continue that relationship beyond its physical form was the heart of the film for me,” he says.

“I love Jack’s writing,” producer Annie Marter relates, “and I’d wanted to work with him for a long time. Then I read about singularity and was instantly gripped by the idea. I thought it was both captivating and scary and, surprisingly, not all that farfetched. Jack and I talked about it, and he agreed.”

Paglen, who for some time had been toying with the basic premise, developed the story by first speaking with his wife, a computer scientist. “She’s my secret weapon,” he smiles. “We talked out the sci-fi angle.” Developing the idea with Marter, he continues, “it all really came together with the idea of a woman trying to save her husband’s life by any means possible, even if her only option was keeping him alive in a virtual way,” he continues. “That opened up a world of possibilities for me, and the emotional storyline humanizes the actions of these characters while also allowing the audience to question them.”

Paglen pitched the concept to producers Kate Cohen and Marisa Polvino, who were instrumental in Pfister coming on board to direct. “Wally’s vision and understanding of ‘Transcendence’ aligned perfectly with what we found most compelling about the story and the deeper implications of technology in our society,” Polvino states.

Cohen agrees. “We already knew Wally as an incredible cinematographer, but after meeting with him we knew he was the only one who could direct the film.”

Pfister loved the screenplay, and sought additional information from several experts, including University of California, Berkeley’s Dr. Jose Carmena, Professor of Electrical Engineering and Neuroscience, and Dr. Michel Maharbiz, Professor of Electrical Engineering, who served as technical consultants on the film.

He also contacted former California Institute of Technology researcher Christof Koch, PhD, who is now Chief Scientific Officer with the Allen Institute for Brain Science in Seattle. Through his work with them and others, Pfister discovered that the script’s scientific premises were not quite as fantastical as he originally thought. Progress in their various fields of research—neurosciences, nanotechnology, cell research and robotics—is slowly turning science fiction into fact.

Carmena notes, “I think the premise of the film is definitely inspiring and futuristic and, at the same time, forward-looking with respect to developments in brain-machine interfaces.”

The filmmakers naturally took some dramatic license in order to serve the plot and the “what-if” thriller aspect of the film. They also wanted to make what is an extremely intellectual study clear and accessible to the audience, and to provide a feeling of suspense and danger as the story progressed. However, as Maharbiz says, “Certainly it’s a sci-fi movie, but the root of a lot of the issues discussed, especially in the first half of the film, are being researched in real time.”

“Every day, these guys are pushing the frontiers of technology,” says producer Aaron Ryder. “It’s exciting just to have a conversation with them. They were absolutely instrumental in helping us not only tell the story, but to understand the story we were telling with respect to the advancements in AI and singularity.”

“Imagine your brain suddenly being able to connect to the Internet, to have access to every bit of information there—financial, medical, political…” Pfister posits. “What would you do with that kind of knowledge, that kind of ultimate power? Would you use it for the greater good, or your own gain, or something else entirely? This film gives moviegoers a chance to see the possibilities and wonder if it’s a choice they’ll ever have to face.” 6