The James Clayton Column: picture the post-human future

The arrival of Transcendence leaves James pondering AI computers in the movies and our post-human future...

Johnny Depp undergoes a metamorphosis and inhabits the persona of someone or something completely different. He does this frequently and is so renowned for it that he’s come to be acclaimed and appreciated as a ‘chameleon’ actor. This very talented and charismatic man completely immerses himself in his roles, his essential Johnny Depp-ness very present but clothed in the form of someone or something wholly other than himself.

Flicking back through his varied and colourful career, we find that Depp has become real people like gonzo journalist Hunter S Thompson, children’s author JM Barrie and transvestite B-movie director Ed Wood, Jr. He has become an artificial man with scissors for hands. He has become a rogue rock star pirate. He has become a Mad Hatter, a loopy Comanche, a singing juvenile delinquent, a singing demon barber, an eccentric and child-like confectionary genius and a chameleon. See, I told you he was a chameleon.

Altogether, Depp is an adept when it comes to transmogrifying into a new altered state, and his diverse theatrical reincarnations astound and entertain audiences worldwide. All those outlandish costumes – goth human Swiss Army knife, buccaneer Keith Richards cosplay, dead-crow headgear chic, etc – are all engaging, but it’s the man beneath the cosmetic features that brings them to life.

On a character level, likewise, the protagonists are truly compelling thanks to Depp’s magnetic performances. For all his A-list infamy, I never feel that the star’s celebrity distracts from narrative immersion and I personally am untroubled by jolting “Hey, it’s Johnny Depp!” moments in the middle of a movie. Still, even when he’s absolutely disappeared into a part and pushed method to maximum, the actor’s identity – the ‘Depp-Essence’, if you will – is the crucial element that makes each character all the more potent. 

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It’s an elusive quality that marks him out as one of this generation’s leading screen performers. On every occasion, to see Depp in a role is to realise that no one else could play that role – the exception being his cameo in Terry Gilliam’s The Imaginarium Of Doctor Parnassus where he, Colin Farrell and Jude Law filled in for the departed Heath Ledger in several fantastical metamorphosis scenes.

He never phones it in or gives a lifeless display and I reckon that Depp’s ability to bring depth to each creation is something that goes unappreciated. Regardless of the nature or quality of each individual film, his presence always elevates the material and as he channels his spirit into the text the result is that the fictional protagonists come to life in style.

Now, in Wally Pfister’s directorial debut Transcendence, that spirit is being channelled into a computer. To be precise, Depp’s spirit is being conveyed into the character of Dr Will Caster whose spirit is subsequently conveyed into an artificial intelligence so that Caster’s consciousness can live on, stored as electrical impulses and data in quantum processers as opposed to his original organic form.

Will Caster by name, Will Caster by nature, the eminent scientist’s mind is uploaded after he is fatally wounded by the technophobe terrorist group RIFT (Revolutionary Independence From Technology). Some would see this as a devastating misfortune but for a scientific innovator pursuing the technological singularity, it’s a perfect opportunity to really become one with his research. 

Transcendence is also an opportunity for Depp as an actor – an unusual role that gives him a chance to play someone with an arc that ranges from rock star scientist to tragic victim to an inhuman (and inhumane?) condition. Likewise, it’s a challenge for the strong cast (Rebecca Hall, Morgan Freeman, Cillian Murphy and Paul Bettany) to act opposite a very changed Depp – a Depp arguably even more extraordinary than the most weird-gone-pro moments in his filmography.

Johnny Depp as an all-powerful computer – and in fact the whole premise of Transcendence – is also something of an interesting challenge for cinema audiences as well. Here on the fringe of the summer blockbuster season is a thriller bright with star wattage, but Pfister’s feature is definitely more a cerebral think-piece than a techno jargon-flinging popcorn flick. Transcendence is ambitious, ambivalent science fiction cinema that presents and probes a speculated near future and in the process it functions as a pressing work that prompts debate on complex issues around technology and humankind’s relationship to it.

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Figuring Depp as a hi-tech villain (is he a villain?) is one thing, but the thematic focus on artificial intelligence and its merging with humanity is what really makes Transcendence a disquieting proposition. It’s true that we’ve envisioned and explored this conceptual territory many times before across the full spectrum of pop cultural formats. We’ve also appreciated the advent of futuristic technology and its wider impact from an array of different angles and attitudinal outlooks – from light-hearted and optimistically excited to apprehensive and pessimistic in anticipation of disturbing dystopias.

Zeroing in on the ‘evil super-computer’ as one recurring trope in science fiction, a quick scan of genre history presents a formidable pantheon of memorable malevolent machines. Thinking film, see HAL 9000 of 2001: A Space Odyssey, the eponymous doomsday device of Colossus: The Forbin Project and Skynet of The Terminator series. Transcendence diverges from the tradition, however, for fundamentally the omnipotent AI isn’t an entirely artificial creation. It’s powered by something organic and though it’s subject to debate depending on metaphysical outlook, the AI is at core the consciousness of a human being. 

What we have here is a human mind and will liberated from the limits of human physicality. Bodies are such an inefficient, ugly and undermining drag and by transcending conventional anatomical form, an individual can become what a superior being with potential for immortality, omniscience and omnipresence (depending on the technology). Dr. Will Caster, as the transcendent specimen of the moment in this cinematic case study, can achieve all of these things and more when he’s existentially recalibrated as a ‘computer-god’ construct.

Caster’s new reality reaches far further than screen cyborgs like, say, RoboCop and Darth Vader who inhabit a humanoid form and are still, in effect, human beings with bonus artificial enhancements. With the species’ identifiable anatomy abandoned, Caster goes beyond transhumanism and represents a post-human stage of evolutional development.

This sustained out-of-body experience achieved through scientific means strikes me as a fascinating, appealing idea. Putting aside a few ‘evil megalomaniac computer’ anxieties, I emerged from Transcendence feeling very pro-technology, enthused about the far-out, futurist scenario I’d just seen on screen. Wally Pfister’s thriller isn’t the only film thinking on these themes, however, for a number of recent movies have similarly mused on the possibility that human consciousness and intelligence could live on independently of an actual, physical human body.

Keeping it vague for fear of spoiling things, those who follow the Marvel Cinematic Universe will be aware that evolving AI is a significant background feature in the ever-unfurling multi-franchise. Shifting genre and speaking more lucidly, Spike Jonze’s Her similarly explored the interconnections and blurred boundaries between human ‘reality’ and artificial intelligence. The possibility of uploaded human minds and souls is just one speculative advancement raised in the film – the operating system Samantha meeting and befriending what is apparently the preserved consciousness of spiritual philosopher Alan Watts in the intangible digital sub-world. (Or should that be ‘digital supra-world’?) 

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Samantha’s statement that she’s simultaneously interacting with 8,316 other artificial intelligences (641 of whom she’s in love with) while effectively dating the very human Theodore Twombly (Joaquin Phoenix) is hard to get your head around. Likewise, the idea that Alan Watts – or indeed any other historical personality – could live on as a disembodied-but-ever-reachable artificial intelligence is even more mind-blowing.

Watts died in 1973 and, on a personal level, his appearance in Her is striking for me as someone who tunes in to a weekly podcast that collects together the Zen teacher’s archived lectures. In a way, audio and film recordings keep the dead alive on a sensory level but just imagine if you could, through technological means, actually retain the vital spirit and sentience of individuals even when they experience bodily death? Imagine if we could upload and protect people’s minds so that we can interact with them and engage with them indefinitely, transcending the limits of human physicality and mortality in the process?

It’s a notion that was beautifully (or disturbingly, depending on how you look at it) explored in the Black Mirror episode Be Right Back – the one in which a grieving Hayley Atwell keeps her relationship with the departed Domhnall Gleeson alive through technology. Regardless of whether any ‘eternal life in an AI’ services along Black Mirror or Her lines eventually become reality, the raising of such ideas in pop culture stimulates deeper thinking. It also encourages audiences to consider their own relationship with technology and, indeed, other human beings around them.

This is the beauty of science fiction – it opens up intellectual and imaginative apertures and allows us a chance to dream, to speculate and to envisage a changed world, simultaneously compelling us to reflect on our own imminent reality and contemporary ideals. Transcendence is one such work that presents a poignant and thought-provoking prospective vision in its story of an individual man becoming far more than a mere man.

If the subtextual philosophical questions are too intense and lofty for you, there’s still the tantalising practical proposition providing exhilarating moments of wonder. How do you fancy shifting into a new electrical existence of free movement through the internet? How would you like to project your consciousness outside of your body? What if your soul could live in a machine? What if you could upload all your intelligence and identity into a digital cyberspace and stay alive and thrive independent of an actual anatomical structure? 

As Dr Will Caster, Johnny Depp is doing that very thing in Transcendence and it may be that one day, Johnny Depp will be doing it over and over again in real life. It may be that in the future filmmakers will be able to cast the long-departed and download their conserved consciousness into a synthetic body. Depp’s greatest performances have a timeless quality and the actor himself would also become literally timeless if it were possible to reach out to his vital spirit and ask it to bring life (or preserved afterlife) to new movies long after his corpse has grown cold.

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It’s a fantastical future to think on and I, for one, like the idea of an artificially-immortal Johnny Depp and the post-human projections and consciousness evolution explored in his new movie. You may feel the same when you experience Transcendence for yourself.

James Clayton is going to transcend his physical form and go and live in Johnny Depp if Johnny Depp is done with living in Johnny Depp and wants to live in a computer. You can visit his website or follow him on Twitter

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