Transcendence
Director: Wally Pfister
Starring: Johnny Depp, Rebecca Hall, Morgan Freeman
119 mins; Class 12; KRS

Who knew Johnny Depp had such a big one? Brain, I mean. Well, at least his character in Transcendence does. Depp is Will Caster, a brilliant scientist and researcher in the field of artificial intelligence.

With his fellow researchers, including his beloved wife Evelyn (Rebecca Hall) and best friend Max Waters (Paul Bettany), Caster attempts to create a sentient machine with a full range of human emotions.

While Caster is respected in his field, he is also a target of anti-technology extremists who will do whatever it takes to stop him. After a string of attacks on artificial intelligence labs across the country leaves Caster fatally injured, Evelyn and Max upload Will’s consciousness onto their systems. Thus, they enable his ‘transcendence’ and before long he has expanded online all over the world… and they have no way of stopping him.

It’s a fairly straight role for Depp, yet he does little with it

The idea of self-aware computers, or technology, running rampant is hardly new. The former was explored to great effect in the Terminator movies and many others. And while way back in 1984 the idea was still quite science fiction, 30 years later it is closer to fact.

Transcendence explores the idea whether artificial intelli­gence, if endowed with the capacity not just to think but also to feel, is a threat to humanity today. It is certainly an intriguing premise.

Wally Pfister working on set.Wally Pfister working on set.

Yet, disappointingly, despite the top-notch cast headlining the film, Transcendence does not quite live up to its potential. The narrative is too clunky and the characters are a tad superficial to answer the many questions posited on the tenuous relationship between mankind and technology.

It tries to be a techno-thriller, a cautionary tale, an unorthodox love story and an action film all at once and succeeds at being neither. The screenplay is in such a rush to establish its main storyline that any semblance of reality is thrown out of the window.

Caster’s transformation from soft-spoken and brilliant scientist to god-like entity is never convincing. His motivations are vague, his ultimate goal unspecified and the plot moves from the slightly ridiculous to the completely ludicrous when he (it?) starts to develop super-powers which allow him to heal the sick, control the weather and so on.

Many other aspects of the screenplay are feebly executed. How does Evelyn, with the help of some locals in a remote and virtually abandoned town, construct a mammoth, fully-functioning underground lab seemingly in days? Why is the FBI led by Cillian Murphy’s Agent Buchanan, hunting down the members of the Rift (Revolutionary Independence From Technology), the organisation behind the attack on Caster, then is suddenly and inexplicably working alongside them? These are just a few examples of the glaring potholes that permeate throughout.

It’s a fairly straight role for Depp, yet he does little with it. It is not a bad performance as such – it’s just really apathetic, and he simply fails to light up the screen. For most of the time, he is nothing more than a hologram, delivering his lines in a monotone with little emotion.

You may argue that this is not a human being after all. Yet, the point of this is that this computer is fully sentient and almost human; and if the film is aiming to trigger doubt as to whether you should root for him or fear him, well, he does neither, for there is little appealing or menacing about the character.

Hall, as Evelyn, provides some depth and projects genuine conflict on realising what a monster she has created. Bettany is in good, if unremarkable, form as Max, also the film’s narrator.

The idea of dissing Hollywood royalty such as Morgan Freeman horrifies me, yet all he does here is phone in the wise mentor and father-figure character he can play to predictable perfection. The members of Rift, led by Kate Mara’s determined Bree, are merely portrayed as bog-standard terrorists, there simply to be the bad guys.

Director Wally Pfister makes his debut behind the camera after a long and award-winning career as a cinematographer, during which he shot myriad films for Christopher Nolan.

His astonishing aptitude is visible as this is a film that is beautifully shot. From the blinding white starkness of the laboratory, to the more intimate shots of dewdrops falling on sunflowers, the film looks gorgeous. The same assurance with his actors and the narrative would have made this that much more transcendent.