Director explores dark side of technology in ‘Transcendence’

By: MARY KATE DORR – Asst. A&E Editor

Oscar-winning cinematographer Wally Pfister stepped out of his comfort zone and into the director’s chair with his directorial debut film, “Transcendence.”

The film, released Friday, April 18, stars what Pfister called a “dream cast,” with lead roles played by Johnny Depp, Rebecca Hall and Morgan Freeman. Depp stars as Dr. Will Caster, a researcher focused on artificial intelligence that virtually uploads his mind to a machine in hopes of creating an omniscient machine as anti-technology alliances attempt to put an end to his experiment.

Although this is Pfister’s first film as a director, he has worked alongside director Christopher Nolan as cinematographer for many films including “Inception,” “The Dark Knight” and “The Dark Knight Rises,” giving him the knowledge and confidence to direct a film himself. Pfister said it has always been his ultimate goal to eventually direct a film, and as his experience with cinematography grew and developed, the idea of directing his own film came knocking on his door.

“By becoming director, I got to become the storyteller,” Pfister said. He enjoyed working through the development of characters and experimenting with the sound and lighting designs, since he had never had input on these aspects before.

A humble Pfister said it was mind-blowing to work with such an all-star cast and that he was fortunate to have them behind him during his directorial debut.

“I am in the likes of these incredible actors,” said Pfister. “Depp was a joy to work with and made the set very comfortable.”

Pfister also credits his partnership with Nolan for aiding him throughout “Transcendence.” Although he has learned from every person he has worked with, Nolan taught him discipline when filming.

“Chris understands that he is responsible for taking other people’s money and spending it, so he doesn’t waste time,” said Pfister.

Even as artificial intelligence is becoming a more popular theme in film, Pfister says “Transcendence” stands out because it takes an emotional approach. This film introduces the concept of uploading a human mind, emotions and all, to a computer, creating a journey throughout the movie based on emotions and character development rather than a standard sci-fi film.

Pfister said they focused much more on the “fi” part of “sci-fi” by pushing limits on current neurological research.
As of now, researchers are able to map brains based on the communication between neurons. Although researchers who worked alongside Pfister claimed all aspects of this film are plausible, Pfister focused on the entertainment value of “Transcendence” rather than the non-fiction elements.

If machines like the one in the film were to exist? “I would be extremely wary,” said Pfister. “The power to extract that amount of information for a human mind would make technology too personal.”

Many have wondered if Pfister’s film will be similar to the 2013 film “Her,” in which Joaquin Phoenix falls in love with a machine rather than a person. Pfister said he was extremely relieved upon seeing the film to find how much it differs from “Transcendence.”

“Some have said ‘Transcendence’ will be the dark side of ‘Her,’” said Pfister.

As director, Pfister made it a priority to not make a statement as a director, but have the characters make statements for the movie instead. He desired there to be no defined “good” or “bad” guys in the film, leaving the audiences to infer statements of their own.

The film also has an open ending for the audience to internalize, think and discuss.

“As we become more dependent on technology, it is important to know whose hands this power [of technology] lies in,” Pfister said. “It is important to know the dangers there can be, and it’s not a bad idea to go out and embrace nature.”