D: Wally Pfister / 119m
Cast: Johnny Depp, Rebecca Hall, Paul Bettany, Morgan Freeman, Cillian Murphy, Kate Mara, Cole Hauser, Clifton Collins Jr, Cory Hardrict, Falk Hentschel, Josh Stewart, Lukas Haas, Xander Berkeley
Those of you with a good memory will recall Johnny Depp’s last sci-fi outing, the distinctly flat and underwhelming The Astronaut’s Wife (1999). Amongst the movies in Depp’s filmography it’s a rare misstep… until now.
Here, Depp plays Dr Will Caster, a scientist investigating the possibilities surrounding artificial intelligence (AI). He is supported by, and works with, his wife, Evelyn (Hall), and from the wider scientific community, Max Waters (Bettany) and Joseph Tagger (Freeman). When he is shot leaving a symposium by a member (Haas) of a radical anti-AI movement, RIFT, Will receives what appears to be a non-fatal wound. Later, he learns the bullet was coated with polonium and he has only a matter of weeks to live.
Appropriating the work of a fellow scientist, Dr Thomas Casey (Berkeley), Evelyn sets up a secret laboratory where she intends to digitise Will’s mind and connect it with a computer system, thus allowing his “consciousness” to live on after his physical death. She’s aided by Max who has reservations about the plan; when it succeeds, and one of Will’s first requests is to be connected to the internet, Max becomes afraid of the potential danger in Will having access to every computer on the planet. He tries to pull the plug but Evelyn stops him and forces him to leave. Max is then kidnapped by RIFT, and their leader, Bree (Mara), decides to keep him captive until they can stop Will’s consciousness from spreading. They arrive at the laboratory too late to stop Will connecting to the internet, and too late to stop Evelyn from escaping.
Meanwhile, Tagger is helping FBI agent Buchanan (Murphy) track down the members of RIFT. When Will manipulates the FBI’s computer system in order to help them, Tagger also becomes worried about the possible consequences of Will’s access. As Evelyn, under Will’s instruction, starts to oversee the building of a brand new facility in the desert town of Brightwood, RIFT inexplicably hold back from trying to sabotage it, and the FBI sit on their hands as well. Two years later, Will has moved on to using nano-technology in his work and when a worker is badly injured, takes the opportunity to use his medical capabilities to “improve” the worker’s physical condition, even going so far as to install software in the man’s head that links him to Will. As more and more people undergo this “corrective surgery”, RIFT and the FBI both become afraid that Will is creating an army, and decide to take steps to put an end to his new existence. The only way they can do it? By using a virus created by Max that should stop Will by shutting down the internet…completely.
Hopefully that (actually quite) brief synopsis should alert the potential viewer that Transcendence has a lot going on, and not all of it either clever or logical. At the movie’s beginning, Will is a bit like an absent-minded professor, and has no interest in trying to change the world through the appliance of new technologies; that’s Evelyn’s aim. As his metamorphosis develops and his “power” increases, he begins to do just that, using nano-technology to heal the sick and heal the planet. All good, right? Well yes, and therein lies one of the movie’s major problems: it’s ostensibly a thriller, and outside of the involvement of RIFT, so far the thriller elements have been sorely lacking (it’s also meant to be a romantic drama, and a cautionary tale, and a bio-horror movie as well). Will’s adaptation of people becomes the trigger for a last quarter increase in action and spectacle that, while predictable, is unnecessary and forced (hell, it’s so forced, the FBI and RIFT practically team up to put a stop to Will’s unwanted apotheosis).
There’s also the timescale, that “two years later” mentioned before where everyone outside of Will and Evelyn sit around waiting for things to reach a point where they have to intervene, whereas before, prevention was the order of the day, both legally and illegally. It’s also absurd to think that Max would be held captive for all this time without anyone trying to find him, but this turns out to be the case. And with the size of the facility being built at Brightwood it’s unreasonable to think that the government or homeland security or the NSA (or someone) wouldn’t come around for a look-see at some point, but they don’t. And it’s equally implausible that Will, even with all the access to information that he has, can create and master so many new technological advances from scratch, but he does.
As science fiction, Transcendence is woollier than most and depends on its human element to move the story forward but even there the story stumbles. Will and Evelyn are supposed to be devoted to each other, and before Will’s death that’s evident. But when he “transcends” he becomes more attentive and tries hard to make up for his lack of a physical presence; however, Evelyn is unhappy with this and shows her unhappiness in such a way that even Will should notice but he doesn’t. Even when she begins to have doubts about what he’s doing he still doesn’t notice – so much for having advanced intelligence! This, of course, leads into the main theme of the movie: can an artificially created intelligence be self aware? (The answer, very obviously, is no.) The movie dangles this supposed conundrum at the audience every now and again as if it bestows some depth on proceedings, but it’s a hollow, nonsensical question which, unsurprisingly, is resolved in an awkward, unsatisfactory manner.
The cast mostly go through the motions. Depp is off his game by a long stretch, and as AI-Will is too subdued to make much of an impression, either as the saviour of the world, or its potential destroyer. Hall’s character is irritating and the actress never quite overcomes this limitation; she also seems unsure of how Evelyn should behave from one scene to the next. Bettany, as the movie’s voice of reason is sidelined too much by his incarceration by RIFT, and early on, plays the concerned friend with so much humility you half expect him to start wringing his hands at the prospective awfulness of what’s going to happen. Freeman does his by-now standard wise old man routine, while Murphy has to cope with being a bystander to pretty much everything. And Mara gives such a blunt performance she never changes her facial expression once throughout the entire movie.
Jack Paglen’s script mixes cod-science with emotional drama to only slight effect, and as filmed, has too many stretches where the movie stops dead in its tracks – which is odd, as the movie is decently paced and only occasionally strays towards boring. The scenes between AI-Will and Evelyn quickly become repetitive, as do those featuring Tagger and Buchanan. In the director’s chair, veteran cinematographer Pfister (making his directorial debut), has obviously kept a close eye on DoP Jess Hall, and the movie is often beautifully lensed, particularly its desert location. He’s less confident when it comes to the cast, hence the lacklustre performances, and the script hasn’t helped him either. There’s also an annoying score courtesy of Mychael Danna, packed with predictable cues and motifs.
Rating: 5/10 – somehow, Transcendence holds the attention throughout, even if it’s just to see how much sillier it can get; with another sci-fi misstep under his belt, let’s see if it’s another fifteen years before Depp makes another venture into the genre.