Rock ‘n’ Roll genius scientist Dr Will Caster (Johnny Depp), the world’s foremost researcher in Artificial Intelligence is bringing sexy back to science and is ON THE VERGE OF A DISCOVERY THAT WILL CHANGE THE WORLD AS WE KNOW IT! He must be a genius; he has tousled hair, glasses and a sweater vest. Unfortunately his controversial experiments have made him as infamous as he is famous and he’s targeted by a terrorist group of 21st century Luddite anti-technology extremists.

Surviving their initial assassination attempt only to find himself fatally poisoned by a radioactive bullet, Will, with the aid of wife Evelyn (Rebecca Hall) and friend and fellow researcher Max (Paul Bettany) downloads his consciousness into a computer before expiring. But is the Will reboot, Will 2.0, really Will?

Sceptical scientist Morgan Freeman and suspicious Fed Cillian Murphy have their doubts and, when Will takes control of the stock market, buys himself a town in the desert and starts curing the world’s sick, disabled and dying with nanobots, building himself an army of nano-enhanced zombies and splaffing around his grey goo, they join forces with arch-Luddite Kate Mara to pull the digitised Will’s plug, byting off more than they can chew as the near omnipotent computer program fights back…

Where’s Wally? With Transcendence’s less-than-stellar performance at the US box office begging questions about Johnny Depp’s validity as a movie star capable of opening a film (Answer: he can’t. None of his films have ever made bank apart from the ones where he’s a trustafarian pirate. Check the stats.) and the film itself asking some pretty big questions about what it means to be human, about how our society treats its sick and disabled, about the dangers of rapidly evolving technology, it’s intrusion into our personal lives, the impending singularity, about hubris, about love, about grief, does God exist and if not do we have the right to create Him (or Her), the biggest question Transcendence fails to ask is just where is novice director, and Christopher Nolan’s favourite cinematographer, Wally Pfister? So suffused is the film with Nolan’s DNA, borrowing his sombre, sober style and his stock supporting cast (Morgan Freeman, Cillian Murphy) there’s little evidence of Pfister, Transcendence feeling almost like a reverent homage to a mentor, an approximation of Nolan’s work assembled from constituent parts (think Gus Van Sant’s faithful but bland Psycho remake), much as protagonist/antagonist Will is reconstructed in the ether. Like the dilemma faced by it’s characters however, Transcendence’s biggest problem is that just because it looks like a duck and quacks like a duck, it doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s a duck. Aptly, there’s something just a little mechanical about it.

That’s not to say that the film isn’t ambitious (it is; very) or that it isn’t enjoyable; it’s a sleek, intelligent slice of sci-fi that, with the exception of Richard Linklater’s A Scanner Darkly, feels more Philip K. Dick-esque than any actual adaptations of Dick’s work (yes geekboys, wonderful as Blade Runner is, even it doesn’t really engage with old Horselover Fat’s ideas and preoccupations on anything but a surface level), cherry-picking ideas and beats from Michael Crichton’s techno-thrillers (most obviously Prey), from sci-fi classics like 2001, The Matrix and Donald Cammell’s Demon Seed, as well as forgotten gems like The Forbin Project and cult favourites like Max Headroom, defying and confounding expectations right up until the moment it turns into any other Summer popcorn studio pap in it’s disappointing final act with the army bringing in tanks to fight Depp’s zombie army and dark, clouds of nanobots that move like mesmerising starlings through to a fudged final twist.

The performances for the most part are good with the luminous Hall wonderful as the grieving widow, driven half-mad by loss, single-mindedly attempting to keep her husband alive as more than just a memory, her eyes bright with wounded insanity, while Mara, Murphy and Freeman are reliably dependable though Bettany is rather wasted as the computer genius best bud whose sole role is really just to explain proceedings to the audience, much as Donald Sutherland tended to do in films of the ‘90s, and would certainly have made a more interesting, more sympathetic Will than Depp. The film’s weakest link, as with most of the films he chooses to sleepwalk through, is Johnny Depp playing the ghost in the machine as if he’s an opium-addled Professor Brian Cox but with better hair, hipster Harry Potter specs and an Elvis mumble rather than an excitable Manc nasal whine and the enthusiasm of a puppy in a room full of unhumped legs. There’s little chemistry between Depp and Hall but that may actually work in the film’s favour, Depp’s Will being something of a cold fish growing increasingly possessive over his wife. And frankly, casting the bland, tedious Depp as a genius scientist who single-handedly takes over the Internet and brings the world to its collective knees is, well, about as plausible as the decision to cast teenager-stalker James Franco in Rise Of The Planet Of The Apes as a genius scientist who accidentally destroys Mankind by creating both a race of super monkeys and a deadly virus. I don’t care how many times Judd Apatow tells us James Franco was reading The Iliad on the set of Pineapple Express or how many dead, gun-nut writers Depp used to hang out with, if we’re being honest, neither one really strikes you as big readers, do they?

While Transcendence almost inevitably recycles Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein with its mad scientist meddles with Nature and develops God complex plot, though Will’s God complex is tangible in that’s a Bond villain-ish underground complex, Transcendence is at it’s best in its quieter moments as the creepy Depp, remote and cold while alive, becomes a controlling, abusive presence in Hall’s life, monitoring her every move, watching her sleep, her life bracketed by his ever-present image staring out at her from computer screens, the obsessive stalker flipside of Spike Jonze’s Her, a cyber Sleeping With The Enemy.

As dire a warning of the future as Transcendence may be however with its omnipotent, sentient, control freak computer program regulating and invading every aspect of our lives, it doesn’t address our own culpability. Knowledge is power and every day we willingly surrender more and more information online to faceless government bureaucrats and viral marketers. We already live in a virtual world; we shop online, work online, date online. Who needs Johnny Depp as a virtual reality Jesus when we have Mumsnet and Dishface Cameron policing the Internet for us, telling us what we can and can’t look at. The scary reality is it’s not the ghost of dead genius virtually dabbling in our lives but a cabal of old Etonians and Amazon. Now, where did I leave my radioactive bullets?

Ambitious and thought provoking without ever really engaging emotionally, Transcendence should be commended for being a tent-pole studio flick that at least credits its audience with the same degree of intelligence as the film itself.


VERDICT: [rating=3]

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