Transcendence Weighs Pros and Cons of Technology

The Next Stage of Humanity Looks Bleak

by Victoria Caroccia

The latest developments in science and technology are constantly pushing ethical boundaries and sometimes has us thinking, “how far is too far?” In his feature film directorial debut, Oscar-winning cinematographer Wally Pfister further pushes this envelope with his post-modernist sci-fi thriller, Transcendence.

Johnny Depp plays Dr. Will Castor, the foremost researcher in the field of Artificial Intelligence who spent the greater half of his career developing a sentient machine that combines human emotions with infinite knowledge. After debuting this highly controversial experiment, a group of anti-technology extremists attempt to destroy both the machine and Dr. Castor.

When he suffers fatal complications from a gunshot wound, Dr. Castor’s wife, Evelyn, and best friend, Max, try to salvage what is left of his creation and his legacy. The two decide to upload Will’s conscience to his super-computer, but later discover that the consequences of their actions may be graver than expected.

As the new Will begins to gain power and consciousness, it appears that his desire for knowledge can never be satisfied. His former colleagues and fellow researchers begin to worry about the rapid progress of this experiment. As Evelyn and Will push the boundaries of science, ethics, and morality, Will’s colleagues team up with the anti-technology extremists to try to stop Will before it’s too late.

The movie plays on the tension of humans and their growing reliance on technology. Despite the abundance of artificial intelligence themed films, however, director Wally Pfister assures us that it’s not just another anti-technology film.

“I think partially what sets Transcendence apart is that it’s not strictly speaking an artificial intelligence…we are talking about an actual human consciousness living in this machine
rather than something completely artificial,” said Pfister. “So that makes it a little slightly different and I think that also sets off the emotional journal. The idea is to question whether in fact this machine contains the actual soul of this particular person.”

For his directorial debut, Pfister pulled out all of the stops to help bring screenwriter Jack Pageln’s vision to life.

“I did an enormous amount of research. Jack wrote the original screenplay and
then I continued writing drafts consequently,” said Pfister. “I went on my own little college tour in early spring of 2012. I went to visit MIT and talk to professors in the field of nanotechnology and in neurobiology and robotics, and even in the media lab to look at some of their projections and get ideas for what was the state of the art in terms of projections and holograms and that sort of thing. They became full-time consultants on the film and were involved in sort of every stage of vetting the science and the medical applications in the film. So I felt pretty confident by the time we started filming that I had a pretty clear idea as to what was really possible and where we are kind of bending it at a sense.”

While the movie is heavily rooted in modern technology, it also deals a lot with basic human emotion.

“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,” said Johnny Depp in an interview about his character Dr. Will Castor.

Producers Andrew A. Kosove and Broderick Johnson were equally intrigued by the story’s emotion.

“I have always been interested in how advancing technologies impact people’s lives,” said Kosove. “I thought that the writer (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.”

“…The idea that a loved one could be uploaded into a computer and you could then continue a relationship beyond its physical form was the heart of the film for me,” said Johnson.

Transcendence is an exciting film packed with thought-provoking subject matter going beyond human emotion and our reliance on technology. Pfister hopes his audience will ponder and discuss the ethical questions that come up throughout the movie, but hopes for everyone to keep one thing in mind.

“If we are going to be relying on technology or are dependent on technology, it’s good to know whose hands it’s in,” said Pfister. “You know, if anything with this kind of power did land in, you know, the hands of somebody more malevolent than what those dangers can be. And it’s also sort of obviously a little bit of a wink at, you know, the fact that it’s not bad idea to turn off these devices every now and again, and embrace nature.”


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