States of Consciousness

Wally Pfister’s Transcendence.

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While many science-fiction movies have tackled the subject of artificial intelligence and the threat it could pose to humankind in a typical “us versus them” conflict, Wally Pfister’s directorial debut, Transcendence, raises a different question: how attached are we to our biological limitations?

The film, which opens across North America tomorrow, stars NUVO spring 2014 cover subject Rebecca Hall as neurologist Evelyn Caster, wife to Johnny Depp’s Dr. Will Caster, an artificial intelligence researcher—both sharp scientific minds who seek to create a machine that is able to simulate human consciousness. Not only do the pair work to program human senses and emotions into Caster’s PINN (Physically Independent Neural Network) machine, they also strive to push humankind towards “singularity”—or as Will calls it, “transcendence”—the moment in time in which the collective intelligence of everything ever known will culminate, allowing the earth’s population to transcend biological and cognitive limitations, effectively changing the face of the planet and the human race forever.

In this vein, Transcendence entertains the notion of a possible symbiosis between the human brain and a near-eternal life. “What we call the ‘upload sequence’ was challenging for us all,” says Pfister, alluding to a scene where Depp’s dying body is hooked up to a device that might—or might not—sustain his existence in another realm. “Credibility in the performance was essential to sell a lofty concept to the audience. Rebecca pulled it off beautifully.”

Hall’s Evelyn walks a fine line of unresolved grief and apprehensive hope throughout the film, unsure of whether or not Will’s soul could ever fully manifest in a non-human form. “There is a vulnerability and a sensitivity that Rebecca has portrayed in other films that perfectly fit my notion of Evelyn,” says Pfister of his lead actress. “Her focused understanding of the character elevated the quality of what ultimately ended up in the film.”

Transcendence certainly puts the idea of elevation at the forefront. If this type of astounding technology was to be developed, would we actually have the ability—and the faith—to embrace it? Or would a profound fear of a limitless world keep us grounded in an analog state? Pfister’s contribution to the AI dialogue opens in theatres April 18.

Photo: Peter Mountain, ©2013 Alcon Entertainment, LLC. Johnny Depp, Rebecca Hall, and Paul Bettany in “Transcendence”.


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April 17, 2014