If it wasn’t for Johnny Depp’s involvement, this very, very ordinary thriller would likely have been a direct to DVD release. In the nineties. Marking the directorial debut of cinematographer (and frequent Christopher Nolan collaborator) Wally Pfister, “Transcendence” is a clichéd, poorly structured and ultimately nonsensical techno thriller.
On the cusp of a major breakthrough in the field of artificial intelligence, an extremist terrorist organisation calling themselves RIFT (Revolutionary Independence From Technology) carry out a series of coordinated attacks, destroying decades of research. One of their targets is the assassination of Dr Will Caster (Johnny Depp) who although he survives the initial shooting, is fatally poisoned by the polonium laced bullet and given weeks to live. As a last desperate act, Will’s wife Evelyn (Rebecca Hall) and friend Max Waters (Paul Bettany) attempt to use cutting edge research to upload Will’s consciousness into the mainframe he created to house an artificial intelligence. Although their experiment seems successful, Max soon comes to fear that what they have created is not his friend Will but something else, pretending to be him. While Evelyn and [virtual] Will go into hiding, Max forms an uneasy alliance with the leader of the terrorists (Kate Mara) and FBI agent Donald Buchanan (Cilian Murphy) and his AI expert Joseph Tagger (Morgan Freeman).
The film opens with a monologue by Max and we learn he is speaking from a time after the events of the story we are about to watch, instantly relegating the actual movie to a prequel. The stakes are immediately rendered moot because we know how it’s going to turn out. Still, that’s not necessarily a problem if the narrative itself is logical, cohesive and compelling, right? Oh dear.
Hampered by a fundamental lack of understanding of computers and artificial intelligence, “Transcendence” relies almost entirely on the classic Hollywood misconceptions about computer coding, nanotechnology, ‘hackers’, the internet, networks in general and so called computer viruses (Bettany’s character even solemnly invokes Y2K as an example of the threat faced). The plot stumbles from one concept to the next, never pausing to explore or expand on the ramifications of the ideas it breezes past, preferring to focus on the badly written characters and ill-defined subplots. There is a point where it looks like it might become a rip-off of Michael Crichton’s “Prey” (which would inject some excitement and scientific credibility) but it chickens out and choppily edits its way to a brief action sequence. The eventual resolution resets the bar for the dumbest computer virus as deus ex machina ending, finally taking the crown from “Independence Day”. But it doesn’t stop there and doubles down with a nonsensical coda implying that the solution simultaneously did and didn’t work, with disastrous consequences. Gah! There’s so much stupid in this film, but I can’t rip into it without giving away massive spoilers (apart from, obviously, spoiler: this is a terrible movie).
While all the characters are underwritten, the worst offence is the change in character of Rebecca Hall’s Evelyn Caster. At the start of the film, she is a brilliant scientist in her own right, almost the equal of her husband and it’s her that figures out a way to ensure Will’s survival by completing the work on digitally recording neural pathways but once the film no longer needs her to be a perceptive and intelligent character, she’s reduced to being a gullible, docile victim without explanation or justification. The motivations and behaviours of the rest of the cast are purely at the haphazard whim of the narrative, simply doing or saying what the story needs them to say at the appropriate time without any semblance of reason or consistency. There’s even a moment where seasoned military personnel are startled by a rain shower, for God’s sake! All these problems are compounded by seriously flawed editing which appears to leave some scenes in the wrong order and others completely missing. With such a sloppy composition, the film ends up creating preposterously impossible events, such as a construction project which puts anything “DIY SOS” or “Extreme Home Makeover” manage to shame as a five storey subterranean computer complex is built within a matter of days, or weeks, or…or…meh, who cares? By this point, I’m assuming Morgan Freeman and Cilian Murphy only agreed to be in this because they owed Christopher Nolan a favour. Or lost a bet. Depp, on the other hand, sleepwalks emotionlessly through the film, almost literally phoning his performance in. The acting challenge for him presumably was suppressing the glee at collecting such a massive fee for this awful movie. Once a fascinating and compelling actor, it’s starting to look like he’s just in it for the money now and I genuinely struggle to think of the last time he made a really good movie. Maybe “Rango”?
Pfister’s direction is flat and lifeless, mimicking the movie itself and suggesting that he’s better suited to helping to realise someone else’s vision rather than taking the big chair. This is a film about the singularity which singularly fails to have any idea of what point it was trying to make and for a story about artificial intelligence, it seems to have used precious little actual intelligence at any point during its creation.