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Cyber-Consciousness Raising with Johnny Depp

by Fred Topel
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Thursday Apr 17, 2014
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Johnny Depp in "Transcendence"
Johnny Depp in "Transcendence"  

The image of Johnny Depp is front and center on the poster for his new film "Transcendence", but it is a virtual Johnny Depp that really stars in the film. Depp plays Will Caster, a dying scientist who uploads his personality into a computer network. While Will appears from time-to-time on computer monitors, much of his work occurs in cyberspace.

In person Depp was all personality, wearing his trademark ripped fedora and referring to the Chinese TV shows he observed while traveling to that country for publicity. He was also self-deprecating, discussing the film’s themes of artificial intelligence at his own expense.

"Having no intelligence, I’m looking forward to gaining something, whether artificial, superficial or super duper, as in the names of some of the Chinese TV shows that you see, like ’Super Happy Funship Rocket Hour Cowboy Time,’" Depp said. "Don Rickles is up after us, by the way."


Nothing flashy

He then got more serious about the film. "Actually, I thought there was something very beautiful to the idea, the sort of disintegration of the character, and to really watch him slowly kind of go out. That was well researched by [director] Wally [Pfister]. It was pretty much the progression, to be uploaded and finally brought to this. Essentially, I suppose once he’s inside PINN (Physically Independent Neural Network), he could become anything. One of the things, hopefully, that came across as he became a brighter, chippier, younger version of Will, he became the version of Will that Evelyn (Rebecca Hall) wants to see as opposed to the Will who can’t button his shirt correctly, and all that."

Evelyn is Caster’s wife and research partner on the artificial intelligence project PINN. When he appears before her, he is the Will Caster she recognizes. It is perhaps one of the least transformative roles of Depp’s storied career. No flashy hair or teeth, no wild costumes, just a man in a suit who represents her departed lover.

"It’s always more difficult and slightly exposing to play something that’s close to the surface, something that’s close to yourself," Depp said about this seeming role departure. "I always try to hide because I can’t stand the way I look, first. I think it’s important to change every time, and come up with something that’s interesting as you can for your characters. In any case, it really depends on what the screenplay is asking of you and what your responsibility is to that character. You have the author’s intent to deal with, and the filmmaker’s vision and then you have your own wants, needs and desires for the character. It’s collaborative, but I knew right off the bat there was no need to go into pink-haired, clown nose, Ronald McDonald shoes at the same time."


Rebecca Hall in "Transcendence"  

Everything comes together

As Caster’s reach grows, he develops a technology that allows him to heal the sick and reverse environmental damage. However, it also makes Caster indestructible, which worries many objectors to PINN. "Transcendence" ultimately leaves it to the audience to decide whether Caster is good or evil.

"When we were doing the film, we were all very closely mapping everything out," Depp said. "We wanted to make sure everything came together in the right order. Especially for Will, in terms of that map, it should be a little vague. Is he losing it? Is it like any of us? I mean, you could make an analogy to a security guard guy who, three weeks prior to, he was mowing lawns for a living. The second he puts on a uniform and a badge, boing, he’s, like, a man. I’d imagine the majority of us all have felt the wrath of the overzealous security guard guy. Is there something lying dormant in the man that’s waiting to be pumped up with that kind of power? Don’t know. Does it reveal him? Don’t know. Does it change him? Don’t know. When Will is in the computer and growing in the computer at this rapid pace, growing through PINN, does any bad person think they’re doing bad things? Historically, they all thought they had a pretty decent cause. A few were off by quite a lot, and they were dumb. I think Will is dedicated to the cause and maybe the power. When you realize you’re essentially God, there ain’t nothing on earth more powerful than you, you can do anything you want. You can transfer every cent from the Bank of England into an account in Syria. You can do anything you want. Will was just so focused on the cause. It’s sort of like Che Guevara, you get into it, too far into it, maybe."


Johnny Depp, Rebecca Hall and Paul Betanny in "Transcendence"  

Not a technophile

As you might expect from an actor who is so expert at playing characters out of time and out of reality, the real Johnny Depp is not much of a technophile. "Things go wrong all the time, especially between me and technology. I’m not familiar with it and I’m too old school to be able to figure it out. Anything I have to attack with my thumbs for any period of time makes me feel stupid. So I try to avoid it as much as possible, to protect my thumbs, of course. Wally has spoken to a lot of the high ups, the hoity-toity scientists and scholars and these incredible people, so knowing that part of the great technology is active, is actually happening, and the technology we’re talking about in terms of uploading a human consciousness is probably not far away, indeed it will happen. It’s pretty close."

The point of "Transcendence" is that all technology comes with a choice. Evelyn chooses to preserve her loved one in a technological system. Should she have done that? That’s up to you to decide.

"Technology is moving and reshaping itself every day radically. If her character was in that situation and the technology/intelligence existed right this second and given a split second to decide, we’re all capable of answering that question ourselves with the person you love: would you do it? Would you be married to a hard drive? Think about how technology is moving so rapidly. Things become obsolete very, very quickly. So let’s say, Will Caster, in 15 years time, is going to be in some weird room in Vegas, and people are plugging quarters into him. Right? Who has a minidisc or laser disc player? It’s over."


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