Johnny Depp talks 'Transcendence' and future tech

Johnny Depp in

Johnny Depp in "Transcendence."

Jim Slotek, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 10:17 AM ET

LOS ANGELES — Johnny Depp keeps looking for any excuse to say the words, “Super Happy Funship Rocket Hour Cowboy Time.”

It’s apparently the translated name of a popular game show on which Depp appeared during his tour of China to promote his new artificial intelligence-themed thriller Transcendence (a trip characterized as a “cultural exchange” by producer Andrew Kosove, one that included a visit to the art commune 798 Zone and a guitar jam session with Chinese rock star David Tao).

But Depp uses it as an all-purpose answer at a press conference here with Transcendence director Wally Pfister, co-stars Morgan Freeman, Paul Bettany, Rebecca Hall, Kate Mara and writer Jack Paglen.

Asked whether he’d welcome being an AI, Depp quips, “Having no intelligence, I’m looking forward to gaining something, whether artificial, superficial, super duper… as in Super Happy Funship Rocket Hour Cowboy Time.”

Which brings us to the TV show.

He remembers the alarming haircuts of the hosts, and “four little quadruplet Chinese boys dressed in Shaolin priest outfits. Transcendence comes out to four Chinese characters, so they’d shaved those characters onto the little boys heads. I’m pretty shy, I tend to run when that kind of thing happens.”

Depp adds: “It was just an amazing experience, constant information, constant something new everywhere.”

As for the guitar noodling, it’s apparently a good ice-breaker.

It’s how he met Wally Pfister, Chris Nolan’s cinematographer of choice on movies like the Dark Knight trilogy and Inception, and came to star in Pfister’s directorial debut Transcendence.

Pfister had been hired by Paul McCartney to point the camera when McCartney decided to direct his own My Valentine video.

Depp was hired for a cameo.

“Wally’s work as a director of photography is legendary. So I was familiar with that. But Wally would set up a shot, and then we’d go and play guitar. He and I would sit, and Paul would come over and we’d make him teach us Beatles songs. We just instantly got along.”

The guy who invested Inception with its trippy visuals seemed a natural for Transcendence, in which Depp plays Will Caster, a world-famous AI expert working on uploading human consciousness itself.

After being mortally wounded in an attack by anti-technology terrorists, his scientist wife Evelyn (Hall) and best friend Max (Bettany) desperately beta test the program on the dying Will.

And in the best Frankenstein tradition, once he hits the Net, Max turns monster, apparently, spreading his influence into the outside world and exerting control over humans — ostensibly for their own good.

The filmmakers, and some of the cast, canvassed actual AI experts on the believability of the premise.

The consensus?

Uploading of every neuron that makes up one’s personality will actually happen within 30 years, amounting to basic immortality.

Depp didn’t consult any experts, though, because he says technology doesn’t “take” with him.

“Things go wrong all the time between me and technology. I’m not familiar enough with it, and I’m too old-school a brain — dumb — to be able to figure it out. Anything I have to attack with my thumbs for any period of time makes me feel stupid.”

Instead, he approached the premise, and the character, from the standpoint of basic human nature.

“Is he (Will) losing it? Is he like any of us? You could make an analogy to a security guard. The second he puts on a uniform and that badge — boing! — he’s like A MAN. I imagine the majority of us 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? Is it really him? Don’t know. Does it change him? Don’t know.

“But when Will is growing along with the computer at this rapid pace, does any bad person think they’re doing a bad thing? Historically, they all thought they had a pretty decent cause. A few were off by a lot.

“But Will is dedicated to the cause. And then there’s the power when you realize that essentially you’re God; there ain’t nothing you can’t do. You can transfer every cent in the Bank of England into an account in Syria.”

And then there’s inevitably, the joke kicker.

“On the other hand, technology is moving so rapidly and things become obsolete very quickly. I see Caster in 15 years time probably in some weird room in Vegas and people are plugging quarters into him. Right? Who has a mini-disc or laser disc player? It’s over.”

The role is kind of an odd turn to normalcy for Depp, in that it’s the first movie in years in which he doesn’t hide behind a “look” (other than a few temporal electrode scenes that make him look like Pinhead from Hellraiser). Unlike Jack Sparrow or the Mad Hatter or Barnabas Collins or Tonto, Depp pretty much looks like Will Caster. They even apparently wear the same glasses.

“For me it’s always more difficult, slightly exposing, to play something close to yourself. I always like to try to hide just because I can’t stand the way I look, first.

“But I also think it’s important to change every time, come up with something, be as interesting as you can for your characters.

“But this one really depends more on what the screenplay is asking of you, the author’s intent to deal with, the filmmaker’s vision and your own wants and desires for the character.

“It was very collaborative. I knew right off the bat there was no need to go into pink-haired, clown-nosed, Ronald McDonald shoes.”

AI AT THE MOVIES: THE BEST OF THE BEST

The question of what a sentient artificial intelligence would do is analogous to what advanced ETs would do upon encountering us. And as expressed onscreen, it’s probably a little tinged with guilt.

It may be that what humans have done when encountering “less technologically advanced” other humans that colours our perception. Like ETs, some AIs have been depicted as our friends and protectors, some are fascinated with the state of being human. But mostly they want to squash us like bugs.

Here are a few of our favourite AIs.

FORBIDDEN PLANET – Robby the Robot, the ultimate, obedient servant (loved the fact that he showed up years later as an evil robot in TV’s Lost In Space).

Cybermen -- Humans-turned-evil cyborgs are one of the Time Lord’s oldest enemies. Catchphrase: Delete!

CLASSIC STAR TREK – The only good computer is one Kirk can talk into killing itself. They could be harmfully benevolent or just crazy. One word, Nomad. And two more, “Must sterilize!”

COLOSSUS, THE FORBIN PROJECT - Love this cult 1970 film about a sentient U.S. defence computer that figures it will just take over the world. Hey, you think James Cameron saw this?

2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY – “I’m afraid I can’t do that, Dave.” At least HAL was polite.

DEMON SEED – Apparently, the first thing a sentient machine was going to want to do was have sex with Julie Christie. Far-fetched, but I can relate.

TRON - When a Master Control Program becomes sentient, it will put us on light cycles and make us race to our deaths for its own amusement. Sounds like a plan.

STAR TREK: TNG – Commander Data embodied the Pinocchio AI, re-envisioned later by Steven Spielberg in A.I. Artificial Intelligence. Really? They’d want to be like us? Really?

TERMINATORS 1 through 15 – SKYNET: One more for the “Must Sterilize!” and “Delete!” column.

TRANSFORMERS: Some of them want to save us, some want to kill us, and some just admire the cool curves of our Detroit-made cars.

HER: To my mind, the most realistic notion of what will happen when programming becomes sentient. They won’t try to take us over. They’ll just break our hearts and leave.

Twitter: @jimslotek

jim.slotek@sunmedia.ca


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