Wally Pfister, a descendent of visionary director Christopher Nolan, working as cinematographer for several of Nolan’s films including “Batman Begins,” “The Prestige,” “The Dark Knight,” “Inception,” and “The Dark Knight Rises,” is at the helm of his first feature-length film with this April’s “Transcendence”. “I think it’s been knocking on my door for a few years and finally it was time to try it out” Pfister said in a recent interview I had with him. “I started thinking about it more and you want to try different things in life.”
“Transcendence” stars Johnny Depp as Will Caster, the leading scientific researcher in the field of artificial intelligence. After he’s shot by a member of a radical, anti-tech organization know as R.I.F.T. (Revolutionary Independence From Technology), he uploads his conscious, with the aid of his wife (Rebecca Hall) and close colleague (Paul Bettany), to a super-computer where he can outlive his mortal lifespan and continue to progress the future towards The Singularity, or what he refers to as Transcendence, (a point in time in which the technology we have created surpasses our own intelligence, wholly altering our society and what it means to be human). I spoke about The Singularity a few months back in my reviewer for Spike Jonze’s “Her,” a film that solicits very similar human and moral inquiries to “Transcendence.”
During our interview, Pfister gave me his take on the “Her” comparisons: “I know one journalist called our film the dark side of “Her.” Wally laughs. “When I saw “Her,” I’d already completed our film and I felt relieved that there are two very different movies.” He added, “I was a huge fan of “Her.”
“Transcendence” probes a bit deeper into the technological advances as of the late, really focusing a keen eye on the potential, high-tech breakthroughs that could be right around the corner, notably Nano-technology, the manipulation of matter. Pfister, eager and enthusiastic to talk about the research he’d done explained, “I did an enormous amount of research. I went on my own little college tour in early spring of 2012. I went to visit MIT and talk to professors in the field of nanotechnology, neurobiology and robotics, and even in the media lab to look at some of their projections and get ideas for what was the state of the art in terms of projections and holograms and that sort of thing.” He elaborated, “I also visited Stanford and spoke to professors there and then did the same thing at Berkeley. I landed on two professors at Berkeley, one in neurobiology and the other one in nanotechnology. They were so helpful. They became full time consultants on the film and were involved in every stage of vetting the science and the medical applications in the film. So I felt pretty confident by the time we started filming that I had a pretty clear idea as to what was really possible, and where we are kind of bending it in a sense.”
Just how far off are we from the cutting edge, hyper-technological realities of what’s depicted in “Transcendence?” “Obviously you cannot upload a human brain with the current technology now.” Wally chuckled, “Where most of the sciences are right now is in mapping the human brain. 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.” He elaborated, “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. And that’s what the two main professors that were my consultants are comfortable with saying, is that most of what we deal within the films is currently time plausible.” He chimed in laughing, “it’s important for everybody to remember the “fi” in sci-fi, it’s fiction.”
Similar to his mentor, Christopher Nolan, Pfister is another traditionalist director who’s refused to give up shooting film in trade for the digital medium, going as far to make sure “Transcendence” was shot in IMAX. “I’m waiting for digital technology to catch up.” Wally admits, “With digital technology, we only have 4K cameras, maybe there is a 5K camera coming out soon, but anamorphic 35-millimeter film is between 8 and 10K. So it’s obviously much higher resolution. It’s better contrast, better color saturation. If you want more detail in the shadow and more detail in the highlights, and an overall richer look, film is still the superior medium. It may seem nitpicky to some because of the digital cameras looked pretty good on a big screen, but the film looks better and I think that a lot of the beauty of photography is in the subtleties and the nuances.” Pfister added, “Digital is getting there. Bit by bit, incrementally, we see improvements, but until it’s equal or better than film, I don’t see any reason to give up film as long as it’s available.”
Wally confessed to how grateful he was for having an A-list cast showcased in his directorial debut “It’s mind blowing.” He chuckles “I feel incredibly fortunate to be lucky enough among my first outing as a director to have the likes of these incredible actors. Obviously I’ve known Morgan Freeman and Cillian Murphy for ten years. We’ve all done three “Batman” pictures together and it was very comfortable working with them, but Depp is just a joy to work with and he is a really smart guy.” He added, “Paul Bettany is a lot of fun, as is Rebecca. Bettany has a great sense of humor, so there is 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, backing me up on my first effort was pretty phenomenal. I feel very privileged.”
Concerning the film’s themes, Wally was quick to voice his input on the perceived cautionary message of the film. “I would say there is no statement being made by the director and that’s what sort of important to me. I think that it’s really the characters that make the statements. I wanted to make film where the characters are making statements rather than the filmmakers.” He also added his personal feelings towards his own technological devices. “I’m not that crazy about giving out personal information on social medial sites.” He humorously added, “I also get a little annoyed when my phone makes me upgrade to the new software, but I love my computer, my cell phone and my iPad.” He concluded by emphasizing, “I guess, I have a love-hate relationship with technology.
Rob Gabe is a third-year student majoring in communication studies. He can be reached at RG770214@wcupa.edu.