Film review: 'Transcendence' fails to transcend

There’s precious little intelligence, artificial or otherwise, in this silly slice of futuristic hokum

Film Title: Transcendence

Director: Wally Pfister

Starring: Johnny Depp, Morgan Freeman, Rebecca Hall, Kate Mara

Genre: Sci-Fi

Running Time: 119 min

Fri, Apr 25, 2014, 00:00


Was ever a film so conspicuously misnamed? Far from achieving any sort of transcendence, Wally Pfister’s dreary first feature remains firmly anchored throughout its weary plod from mild absurdity to rank incoherence.

This latest attempt to make cinematic sense of artificial intelligence certainly strives for philosophical breadth and spiritual depth. Unfortunately, it ends up playing like Max Headroom Conquers the Universe. We trust that Mr Pfister, best known as cinematographer to Christopher Nolan, remembers where he left his viewfinder. He’ll be needing it.

Johnny Depp hits his consonants as Will Caster, a computer boffin who speculates about spreading a collective consciousness throughout the internet. Evelyn (Rebecca Hall), his wife and professional partner, has even wilder dreams. She imagines that, in the near future, artificial intelligence will help us clean the earth, cure disease and usher in the new digital Jerusalem.

Meanwhile, a shadowy cadre of neo-Luddites is plotting to dismantle the digital world. One of their number shoots Will after a lecture. At first it seems that, merely grazed, our hero is in no serious danger, but it transpires that the bullet was laced with an isotope that triggers fatal radiation sickness. Johnny begins coughing feebly as bad sick-man makeup creeps across his lovely face.

Oh, come on, Evelyn. Hurry up! We all know where this is going. Upload his consciousness onto a computer and set in train new variations on the Sorcerer’s Apprentice. There you go.

This sounds like a good idea for a film, but actually it’s a very bad idea for a film. Directors have always struggled to represent the online world cinematically. The recent The Fifth Estate constructed some awful clunky visual metaphors involving a vast space of imagined desks. Spike Jonze did much better in Her by allowing a disembodied Scarlett Johansson to appear both intimate and out of reach.

Here Pfister and his team take the moronic decision to place Depp’s mug on a screen and invite him to chat omnipotently to Hall and, eventually, the entire world. We get no sense of the sheer strangeness of the concept. Depp is still Depp. He’s just that bit flatter than usual (in every sense of the word).

Still, we can, at least, follow the virtual dreamboat’s dangerous motivations. Juiced up on his own superhumanity, he (it?) attempts to perfect the world by infecting it with nanotechnology that, while curing disease and reversing pollution, will ultimately turn the planet into a vast inorganic machine. The other characters change their minds and allegiances at the drop of a plot point. Insurgents become freedom fighters. Allies become antagonists. At times, the script plays like a slice of fan fiction devised by a basement-load of Mr Nolan’s less intelligent adherents.

None of this would matter so much if the piece were carried off with some technical flair. Despite costing $100 million and involving many talented people – Cillian Murphy plays a digital cop; Morgan Freeman is a Freemanesque wise old sage – Transcendence looks inexplicably unattractive and graceless throughout. A drab special effect depicting nano-devices creeping from the soil outstays its welcome on the second or third of its several dozen outings. The vast complex that houses Depp’s throbbing code would barely have seemed “futuristic” in 1974.

Did you mention the dialogue? I wish you hadn’t. Most of the time the characters spout bald exposition and sophomoric futurology, but, on a few precious occasions, the lines reach the depths of camp extravagance.

In a desperate moment, her eyes (and who knows what else) moistening aggressively, Hall is heard to plead: “Oh, Will. Please upload me! Please upload me!” So that’s how you kids refer to it these days.