It’s been long journey for filmmaker Barry Ptolemy in his pursuit to capture the ideas and life of one of the United State’s most controversial and brilliant minds—that of futurist and inventor, Ray Kurzweil. Ptolemy’s film, Transcendent Man, released in 2009, will hold its Chicago premiere on the IMAX screen of the Museum of Science and Industry tonight.
The film is beautifully shot and features some of the biggest names in science, politics and entertainment talking about the man whose ideas about the future are some of the most mesmerizing of our time.
But Transcendent Man didn’t begin as a documentary about the man who would become the film’s hero. As Ptolemy originally conceived the story, it would focus on the theory that Kurzweil is perhaps best known for—The Singularity—or the moment in time when the line between humans and artificial intelligence ceases to be clear.
Ptolemy first came in contact with Kurzweil and his theories the way many people have—through Kurzweil’s 2005 book The Singularity is Near: When Humans Transcend Biology. To say that the book had an impact on Ptolemy would be to put it lightly.
“Immediately upon reading the first couple of chapters, I thought it could be one of the most powerful films that anybody could make,” Ptolemy said. “It didn’t dawn on us until many, many months later that we would incorporate Ray and make it a movie about him.”
Transcendent Man follows Kurzweil as he travels around the world talking about the future of humans, technology and what he believes is in store for both. Fast-paced and entertaining, it explores Kurzweil’s predictions for the future, even as it traces the inventor’s past, his critics and his relationship with his father.
“I wanted something ancient and mythical,” Ptolemy said of his search for the film’s narrative.
As much as Transcendent Man is the story of Kurzweil’s predictions about what the future holds for humans and technology, it’s also a moving portrait of a man’s relationship to his father and his belief that he can bring him back to life. It took Ptolemy over a year to gain Kurzweil’s confidence to talk in depth about his father—and his plans for his resurection.
“I remember when he first said he would take us to his father’s grave… I said, ‘we have our story,’” the director recalled.
It is an aspect of the film, and of Kurzweil’s story, that the press and the public have seized upon. A talking point of some critics who at times consider Kurzweil a dangerous nut job, is the futurist's belief that not only will he be able to live forever, but that he will be able resurrect his father Fredric, who died in 1970, as well.
“If you listen to Ray talk about it, it doesn’t seem so crazy anymore,” Ptolemy said.
One of the most interesting aspects of the film is the back and forth of Kurzweil’s critics and proponants. Kurzweil himself moves in an out of the film through years of interviews and looks calm and collected as he explains living in virtual reality, downloading a human mind, or injecting millions of nano-sized robots in your blood stream to end the aging process. It’s all as if the ideas were as simple as sending an email—but that’s precisely Kurzweil’s point. Not long ago, he regularly reminds us, today’s technological innovations would have been inconceivable. Central to Kurzweil's predictions is that they will continually be happening quicker, through the law of accelerating returns.
Although Ptolemy said that he believes in the validity of Kurzweil’s ideas, the movie was not controlled by Kurzweil in any way. He didn’t even see it until a few weeks before the film’s debut at the Tribeca Film Festival. Instead Ptolemy said he tried to poke as many holes in the theories as he could, going back to re-interview critics several times as the film progressed.
“If I could find a hole in this and bring down his theory, that would be an important point too,” Ptolemy said. “I never found an argument that was even close to suitable for my own purposes, for my own curiosity, why this could not happen exactly as Ray says it. By no measure is this promoting Ray. We were trying to get the facts straight.”
The tone of Transcendent Man is largely aided by the music of composer Phillip Glass to great effect. Both classical and futuristic, ambient and resounding, Glass’ score lends greatly to the feeling the viewer walks away with in the end.
“First of all, you don’t pick Phillip Glass, he pretty much picks you,” Ptolemy laughed. “We thought early on there were only a couple [of composers] on that list, and Glass was one of them—and he was also interested. The ideas are both vastly simple and vastly complex [in the film] and we wanted something like that. Something simple and yet complex and elegant, and no one resonates like that like Phillip Glass.”
In the future, Ptolemy said he’s probably done with documentary and would really rather never make one again.
“They’re hard in every way and they take a lot of travel,” Ptolemy said. “Narrative film is where my heart is and feature films—particularly science fiction—is where I’d like to go.”
Ptolemy is currently considering a number of topics for future films, and plans to continue to collaborate with Kurzweil on a fictional, sci-fi version of the ideas and predictions in The Singularity is Near.
“We’d like to do a science fiction film about what the future will actually be like in 25 years,” Ptolemy said. “As science fiction is written—it’s really not accurate. Even one of my favorite filmmakers, Steven Spielberg, he makes a film like Minority Report… That was made almost 10 years ago. There’s already a technology in Minority Report that we’ve surpassed. The way the future will really be will be hard to write for, but we’d like to take a crack at it.”
So, how will Ptolemy make films after The Singularity, and what will they look like in the future?
“We’ve been telling stories for thousands of years,” Ptolemy responded. “We could not have this complex civilization without all the reflection and wisdom and knowledge that is shared through the arts and particularly through storytelling.’
“If I create a horror movie in 2027… will all my psychological issues be used in it? I think things will be much more customizable… using our memories. Will we all go sit in the theater? No I don’t think it will be like that. I think it will come directly through our cerebral cortex.”
Without needing to hook anything up to your cerebral cortex, you can view the Chicago premiere of Transcendent Man at the Museum of Science and Industry tonight, at 7 p.m. Tickets are still available and you can buy them at a discounted price, here. In addition, you can get a chance to ask the film’s director a few questions too. A Q&A session with Barry Ptolemy will follow the screening.
- By Matthew Hendrickson