Stars: Johnny Depp, Rebecca Hall, Morgan Freeman
Director: Wally Pfister
In the ever-clunking realms of Hollywood, a collection of unmade scripts is compiled each year as ‘The Black List’ – screenplays which find favour with the producers and big-wigs but never quite come to fruition.
Transcendence made the list in 2012. Billed as an “epic love-story” that pokes the blurry line between artificial intelligence and human consciousness, the premise is in fact ripped from paragraph three of the ‘Basic Concepts’ section of the ‘Technological Singularity’ Wikipedia page.
Now made manifest, this horribly confused clunker exists only as a meta-joke: wouldn’t it be funny if we made a film about the deepest possible topic, only to copy-and-paste from a crowd-sourced online dictionary…
Returning to that spooked and dishevelled look from Secret Window, Johnny Depp plays Doctor Will Caster: an allegedly brilliant scientist and part-time philosopher who thrives in a world of scrawled equations and blinking data banks.
Fatally wounded by a radiation-laced bullet, his wife Evelyn (Rebecca Hall) and best friend Max (Paul Bettany) must upload his brimming mind into an immense computer.
The good doctor becomes the very entity he’s been searching for his entire life, doubling and redoubling his processing power until repairing human tissue, hacking Wall Street, and building vast structures becomes mere child’s play.
Depp headlines the escapade but is thankfully absent for half the film, leaving Hall to hold together a meandering and gutless script. Paul Bettany once again tries his best with bland material, appearing as the only character with any kind of moral core. (It should be clear by now that both Hall and Bettany need to fire their agents in a hurry.)
A few other usual suspects are present: Morgan Freeman doing what Morgan Freeman does, and Cillian Murphy smothering his own impeccable skill in waxy indifference as a stilted FBI man. Kate Mara (still lurking in the shadow of her remarkable sister Rooney) leads a dissident gang of terrorists determined to unplug themselves from the age of technology.
Transcendence is Wally Pfister’s directorial debut, taking flight from Christopher Nolan’s nest where he served as an acclaimed Director of Photography. Despite appearing as a producer, Nolan’s careful eye was clearly roaming elsewhere.
Pfister’s renowned for impeccable and impressive visuals is let down by poor narrative sense and logical consistency left unattended. The story, originally promising, grabs hold of any strand possible and never succeeds in weaving together a coherent plot. It’s a non-sequitr followed by a plot hole followed by an anti-climax – more Demon Seed than 2001: A Space Odyssey.
Each portion of the film’s messy exposition has potential. Are we too attached to technology? What does it mean to be human? Do our mortal bodies limit our consciousness? Is there worth in exploring Neo-Luddite philosophy? Could artificial intelligence ever be moral? What is the next stage of evolution?
None of these ideas are new – one only needs to take a look at Isaac Asimov or Philip K. Dick – and selecting just one question could lead to great cinema. But throw them all together and the circuits will get fried.
Observer film critic Mark Kermode one called Nolan’s The Dark Knight Rises “a film about ideas” masquerading as popcorn entertainment. Pfister wants to walk his master’s road and attempt the same clever conceit, yet succeeds only in being remarkably dull.