Not since ‘Star Trek’ creator Gene Roddenberry tinkered with a little idea he called “Wagon Train to the Stars” has a futurist ignited the minds of film and TV fans. And thanks to the intergalactic popularity of this little series that could, the rulers of the pop culture universe are now much more open to ideas that in the past seemed too fantastic to believe.
You don’t have to tell that to husband and wife filmmakers Felicia and Barry Ptolemy. Ever since reading the Ray Kurzweil bestseller “The Singularity Is Near” in 2006, the TV and movie makers have been busy bringing the book to life in the form of ‘Transcendent Man‘ a documentary film that follows the brilliant scientist, engineer and inventor all around the globe as he spreads his message about the future of the human race. Only this time, unlike sci fi TV shows like ‘Fringe‘ and ‘Numb3rs‘ there’s no apocalypse at the end of the road.
Because of his experiences as an inventor and third millenial philosopher, Ray Kurzweil and his ideas are a topic of discussion for many of the world’s most well-known people, from Ed Begley Jr. to Colin Powell. Of course, if you propose that humans will assume machine intelligence and will one day live forever, you’re bound to draw a lot of attention, and controversy.
When “Transcendent Man” debuts today at The Tribeca Film Festival, the rest of the world will have a chance to see whether or not Ray Kurzweil’s startling ideas have a chance to go as far as Gene Roddenberry’s little, but brilliant concept.
We caught up with the Ptolemys as they were getting ready to fly to New York for the premiere and dug a little deeper into an idea whose time, apparently, has come.
How did you get involved in this project?
Felicia Ptolemy: Barry is a prolific reader and loves to read anything new and cutting edge, so three years ago when Ray’s book “The Singularity Is Near” came out, Barry read a great review of it in the L.A. Times. When we went to the bookstore, he picked it off the shelf, and I don’t know if you’ve seen it, but it’s thick and looks very scientific. But we ended up getting it and as Barry began to read it, he was blown away by the ideas. He read the first chapter and started sharing it with me, and by the time he finished reading it over that week, we decided to make a film about it.
We’ve had different TV projects and films we’ve wanted to do over the last 10 years, but this particular project was so interesting that it started to have a life of its own. We ended up very fortuitously finding some amazing partners that wanted to get involved in making the film, even investing money in it, so we got going from there. We contacted Ray Kurzweil, thinking it would take months for him to talk with us, but he got back to us the very next day. We ended up meeting with him about 2 weeks later, and it kind of all went from there.
It seems like finding people to talk about this hasn’t been too difficult.
Felicia Ptolemy: No, it hasn’t. We hit it off with Ray from the beginning and by talking with him, traveling around the world with him and seeing reaction to his ideas, it’s been very exciting. We were able to talk with many prominent people, from Colin Powell to William Shatner, and even most recently when Philip Glass agreed to write the score, we knew we were on to something very relevant and that strikes a chord with people from all walks of life.
The subject matter is really speaking for itself then.
Barry Ptolemy: Right. You just hit the nail on the head there. It is as if the ideas had to come out to the world, and as they’ve found this vehicle, it’s become this living, breathing thing bearing the fruit of these ideas. Ray’s publisher, Penguin Books tells us that all 5 of his titles are constantly increasing in demand with very little marketing or advertising. At a ground view level people are naturally drawn to these ideas somehow. That was the experience I had when I saw the review and read the book. I just had to make a movie. So that’s what we did.
There is some controversy over these ideas. How do you respond to some of the negative criticism?
Barry Ptolemy: We welcome it. We feel we’re lucky to have people who are offering criticism and opinion, it’s very helpful to the film, obviously. But more importantly it shows how big these ideas are. We are not in this world without consequence, and there are those who are opposed to a change in the status quo. So we’ve tried to bring antagonistic viewpoints to the table, because if Ray’s ideas are as awesome as we think, everybody benefits.
Felicia Ptolemy: That’s right. You know off the bat, the idea that we will merge with machine intelligence and can now live forever sounds ridiculous. And Ray understands that. He says when he encounters resistance it reminds him of himself 30 years ago. He introduces these concepts in a way that people are not turned off, but intrigued and at least want to learn a little bit more. It’s just another way to think about where we’re going and what human potential really is.
It’s an exciting time to be alive.
Felicia Ptolemy: That’s right, we think we’ve won the ultimate universal Lottery. I don’t think most people think about it, but our generation is likely to see the most amazing changes that humankind, and really all life on this planet has ever witnessed, so it’s very exciting to be a part of it.
What sets your documentarian style apart from other filmmakers?
Barry Ptolemy: I’ve always believed that content really dictates style of anything. Whether it’s literature, art, certainly movies. But when you’re lifted to the heights of all human knowledge and experience, it naturally drives the energy of the film. It wasn’t hard to create something beautiful because the film has a natural tendency to reveal beautiful ideas. What I had to do as the Director, was constantly get out of the way, and I think because of these new ideas it was easier to do some cutting edge work in terms of style, and animation or even graphics. And the whole crew has been inspired, actually aspiring to the spirit of the film, so hopefully that shows through with something that has never been done before.
Felicia Ptolemy: And I’d like to say that what has been driving this project is the exciting thought that these ideas, from an optimist, not just an idealist, offer hope. We think that every person in the world should be offered a chance to understand that the future offers hope for more openness, more information, more prosperity and longer life, and we’re very pleased to be able to share that with the world.
Find out for yourself when “Transcendent Man” premieres Saturday, April 25th at The Tribeca Film Festival. If you can’t make it, look for the film in wider release later this year when “The Singularity” is at a theater near you.