Shortly before he began shooting his new artificial-intelligence thriller "Transcendence" last year, filmmaker Wally Pfister flew Jose Carmena and Michel Maharbiz, a pair of UC Berkeley scientists, to his office in Los Angeles. Professional consultants are common on Hollywood movies, but they're not usually this advanced — Carmena studies neuroscience and Maharbiz is a nanotechnology specialist — and even fewer go deep into the weeds with directors.
For 10 hours, the men pored over the script with the intensity of lab researchers on the verge of a major discovery. They discussed the density of brain signals, the limits of nanotechnology and the vexing problem of defining consciousness scientifically.
"We went through line by line, hitting on a technical topic and just going through it with Wally and his team," said Maharbiz, whose journal articles come with titles such as "Can We Build Synthetic, Multicellular Systems By Controlling Developmental Signaling in Space and Time?" "I've almost never seen people want to understand it at that level," he added.
Science-fiction movies have looked at the possibility and peril of artificial intelligence since HAL sought to destroy Dave Bowman in "2001: A Space Odyssey" back in 1968. Sarah Connor would of course later try to beat back the malicious plans of Skynet in the Terminator" franchise, and Hugo Weaving's coolly robotic Agent Smith proved a slippery foe for Neo and friends in "The Matrix."
But few in this subgenre have examined the theme with the level of scientific rigor — or, for that matter, the emotionally inflected story line — of "Transcendence." Thanks to the emerging intelligence of digital creations, Pfister and screenwriter Jack Paglen are able to indulge in a science fiction that, while fantastical, is both plausible and plausibly human.
Written by first-timer Paglen and marking the directorial debut of Pfister, the Oscar-winning cinematographer and longtime Christopher Nolan collaborator, "Transcendence" concerns an artificial-intelligence researcher named Evelyn Caster (Rebecca Hall) who uploads the consciousness of her husband and professional partner Will (Johnny Depp) just before he dies from a gunshot wound inflicted by an anti-technology radical. She is hardly engaging in disinterested science: Will is the love of her life, and the possibility that a digital replica can keep him with her is too powerful to resist, no matter the consequences.
In the ensuing weeks, the entity voiced and embodied by Will not only gains consciousness but evolves past the point of mere human abilities, engaging in superhuman activity in the interest of bettering society (he says). In the process, the digital Will provoke fear — maybe justified, maybe not — on the part of the couple's close friend, the fellow researcher Max (Paul Bettany), as well as a swelling cadre of government authorities fearful of a force they can't control.
With its action set pieces and propulsive plot, the $100-million-budget "Transcendence" is an unmistakably Hollywood confection. Yet with its slowed-down moments hashing out questions of digital consciousness and human evolution, it also puts complex philosophical issues at the fore. The film essentially offers the man-vs.-machine tension of "The Matrix" — only this time there's a decent chance we should be rooting for the machine.
This is not 'point the laser and zap the guy to death.' These are real human beings faced with something large," Depp said. "It's something the audience is really meant to ponder.
At a moment when sophisticated computer assistants like Siri are a part of everyday life, the movie poses timely questions. Can technology be harnessed to improve our lives or is it a force, once unleashed, that can't be controlled? Is our current, human-centric form of existence one that future generations will see as idyllic or primitive?
In a culture of big-budget moviemaking that tends to investigate socially relevant issues years after the fact, if it does so at all, "Transcendence" looks forward, asking questions we will soon be forced to think about — and, for all the movie's entertainment value, implicitly urges us to start thinking about them now.
Despite the theoretical premise, the movie is also set in a world that looks like the one we inhabit today. "I wanted it to feel like science fiction but contemporary science fiction, with as few leaps as possible," Paglen said. "The root question is how far would you go to save your loved one, and that's going to be more pressing if it looks and feels like our world."
Or as Hall put it, "This is set in a world I know. This isn't tinfoil helmets and spaceships."
Some may have yet to become intimately familiar with concepts like the singularity or a transhumanist future. Chances are, though, that our great-grandchildren will. Or perhaps our great-grandbots.
The idea of the singularity — investigated by scientists such as San Diego State's Vernor Vinge and popularized by the author and Google futurist Ray Kurzweil — argues that computer technology is evolving so fast it will eventually enhance or combine with human consciousness.
How this great meld will happen is a matter of debate. Humans may incorporate digital technology into their cognitive processes as a Darwinian hedge, says one school of thought. Or consciousness could be uploaded to machines. But whatever the method, the questions are rich. At bottom, they ask both how they will change our lives and what it will mean to be human.
Carmena and Maharbiz are skeptical of anything too radical happening quickly — though they admire the brio of the film they worked on and visited the set for ("It does a great job of exploring the tension between the ground truth of science and what could be the science-fiction consequences," Marhabiz said)-- ultimately Carmena articulates their belief that "No one knows what consciousness is, and that's what makes this all so difficult."