Justin Chatwin — you might know him as Jimmy/Steve from Shameless — has done his fair share of dabbling with science fiction and fantasy. He was Tom Cruise's son in War of the Worlds, an astral-projector in David Goyer's The Invisible, Goku in Dragonball Evolution, a song-and-dance man in the bonkers sci-fi musical Bang Bang Baby, a cat-man in the rom-com Unleashed, and a caped crusader in the 2017 Doctor Who Christmas special.
"I love sci-fi," he told SYFY WIRE. "The first movies I saw and loved as a kid were all sci-fi, like Fire in the Sky, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, and E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial. I've always had a fascination with alien abductions, extraterrestrial life, and Area 51. So I've always loved sci-fi. I just haven't had enough opportunities come my way to do more of it."
So when a "super talented" director friend of his, Robert Scott Wildes, with whom he had worked previously on a western came to him with the opportunity to play a tech genius in In the Cloud, a sci-fi film exploring digitizing human consciousness, Chatwin jumped at the chance. But the stylistic film, now available to view on Crackle, became more than what he'd imagined along the way. Chatwin, who was in a brutally honest mood, filled us in.
In the Cloud tackles brain mapping, memory diving, the possibilities of all-inclusive sensual modality in virtual reality technology, and virtual afterlives. This is kind of a zeitgeist moment for those hot topics, which are also being explored in Altered Carbon, Nick Harkaway's new book Gnomon…
Yeah. I think that In the Cloud was aimed at being a cautionary tale about all of that, for sure. Before doing this project, I read this book — no, actually two books — by this historian guy Yuval Noah Harari. He's more known for Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind but he also had this book called Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow. "Home Deus" translates to "the god in man," or "man's search to become god." That's kind of what we're doing in the technological age, what we're going to be able to create, such as genetic engineering where you can choose the eye color of your baby.
Why do you think we seek god-level control like that?
I guess it's because we're basically spinning on a rock in outer space, which is pretty out of control. These virtual worlds allow us to be more in control, because the real world is an unpredictable place. And the time of our death is unpredictable, too. We're evolving now into a place where the landscape to conquer is people's minds, people's thoughts. So being able to make technology happen that affects human consciousness, that's the ultimate power.
Cal Tech is working on that. They're been experimenting with monkeys, and they're now able to extract photographic images from MRI scans.
Yep, Cal Tech's doing it. If a brain-machine interface were available to us, would you do it? Would you map your brain?
What do you think the root is of the desire to do all this? The desire to know ourselves better, right? We try to find ways to live our lives with more peace, and less suffering. It's like why people with depression and anxiety take anti-depressants, to feel more balanced. So for me, I guess a brain map would be to go, "Oh! There's all this stuff that happened in my life, and I need to process this, and I need to do some therapy on this, and then I might understand that." The pursuit is to feel whole. To feel happy. To feel healed. And you can create a world where you can basically bring back people who have died. But it also can be used, just like anything else, for destructive ways, too.
Which brings us to the rather timely political aspect of the film: the white supremacist terrorist bomber character Max.
Oh, yeah. I don't even… I guess so. [Laughs] That was a reshoot they did after, to try to make sense of that.
Oh? So it wasn't in the original script?
No. It definitely helped make the movie more into a thriller, but a lot of the stuff with the bomber was shot after we had completely wrapped. The script from the beginning was a work in progress. I think the writer [Vanya Asher] wrote it in two weeks. When they grafted onto it a thriller about a neo-Nazi bomber, and us being detectives trying to uncover that, none of that was in the original script!
So I felt like I was in a different movie than Max. I personally think there were two clashing visions in this movie that didn't really line up very well. There's one storyline where there's bombs, and they're trying to track down the bombs by going through the terrorist's mind, which is pretty fascinating. And then the other vision is these club kids who had deep trauma in their lives, and they were basically on a race to create digital consciousness. And these two visions kind of contradicted each other. I felt like it was two movies in one. I mean, did you feel that?
So what was that conversation with the director like, once you realized what was happening?
It wasn't the director. It was the network. Crackle has the potential to be a really cool network. I mean, it's free. You get the app, and you can watch all this amazing stuff. So they have the potential but I don't think they've quite figured out what their genre, their tone is yet.
When we first started filming this movie, I thought it was going to be really a quirky, odd, bizarro movie. And then at the end, they were like, "No, we ordered a thriller. A techno-thriller." And I was like, "Um, that was never communicated to anyone?" So then they tried to reshoot it and make it what they originally wanted. I'm all for change. I love change. But once it's in the can, seeing a final cut and going, "We want to make this into this"? Yeah. But all in all, there's a lot of interesting filmmaking in In the Cloud. The acting is great, and the idea spurs conversation, which is the most important thing. Digitizing human consciousness, that's fascinating. That's profound. That to me was, "Wow!"