Pfister’s new take on artificial intelligence


Linda Smith, Staff Writer


The prospect of another artificial intelligence, man-versus-technology movie can make one unwilling to see “Transcendence,” which opened in theaters April 18. However, while the movie takes on the oft-discussed topics of artificial intelligence and man versus technology, it puts humans at the helm of both fields.

Dr. Will Caster and his wife Evelyn, played by Johnny Depp and Rebecca Hall, respectively, are two neuroscientists working on a machine called a Transcendence, which would enable computers to transcend the intellectual limitations of the human brain. Through the actions of a radical anti-technology group (spearheaded by “House of Cards” star Kate Mara), Will is shot. During his last days, Evelyn and fellow researcher

From left, Joseph Tagger and Agent Buchanan (Morgan Freeman and Cillian Murphy) tour the facility powered by Drs. Will and Evelyn Caster (Johnny Depp and Rebecca Hall). –Photo courtesy of Warner Brothers
From left, Joseph Tagger and Agent Buchanan (Morgan Freeman and Cillian Murphy) tour the facility powered by Drs. Will and Evelyn Caster (Johnny Depp and Rebecca Hall).
–Photo courtesy of Warner Brothers

Max Waters (Paul Bettany) begin trying to upload Will’s brain to the network of Transcendence. The transfer works, and before long, Will becomes an omniscient being looking to help others, but constantly overstepping his bounds and putting those he cares about in harm’s way.

The movie is Wally Pfister’s directorial debut. The Oscar-winning cinematographer, who won Best Cinematography for “Inception” and has worked on the Batman films and “The Prestige,” among others, felt that the urge to direct had “been knocking on [his] door for a few years and finally it was time to try it out.”

Along with Depp, Hall, Bettany and Mara, Morgan Freeman and Cillian Murphy also star in the film. When asked what having top-billed actors in his first film was like, Pfister said that the greatest, and also the “most enlightening, wonderful fun,” was in directing these actors.

“I feel incredibly fortunate to be lucky enough … to have the likes of these incredible actors,” Pfister said. “There was a really nice calm levity on the set that I think made a comfortable environment for all of us. To have this kind of talent was pretty phenomenal. I feel very privileged.”

While the movie is science fiction, and Pfister stresses the fictional aspect of the movie, it is important to note that it is based on current research. Pfister had two professors from Berkeley, Drs. Jose Carmena and Michel Maharbiz, as full-time consultants for the film.

“Where most of the sciences right now is in mapping the human brain, and there are several projects around the world where they are slowly and meticulously working on mapping of a human brain, which is basically logging in the synapses and the communication between neurons,” Pfister said. “So that’s our real stretch — being able to take, you know, a human mind and upload it in the computer and successfully. Beyond that, of course, the nanotechnology is our own creation. It is based on sort of speculation and what might be plausible in the future.”

Pfister wanted to have the movie be something “where the characters are making statements rather than the filmmakers,” but he did have something to say in terms of what the movie could be suggesting about how we interact with technology today.

“I think that what we see from the character of Evelyn is … her hope that technology will be used for the betterment of mankind, and certainly the statement from Will is that everything that he wants to do, everything that he tries to do, is for her, and it’s because of his love for her,” Pfister said. “If there is any slight thing that the filmmaker is saying in the end, [it] is this notion that there are reasons to use technology, you know, to aid some of the problems that we’ve inflicted … environmentally, and that’s basically taking Evelyn’s line. I think most of it is sort of this notion that … if we are going to be relying on technology or are dependent on technology, it’s good to know whose hands it’s in.”



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