fri 16/04/2021

Transcendence | reviews, news & interviews

Transcendence

Transcendence

Mankind in peril from disembodied technology genius

Johnny Depp as Dr Will Caster, making Steve Jobs look like an under-achieving amateur

A quick scan of the credits gives grounds for optimism about Transcendence, with Johnny Depp leading a copper-bottomed supporting cast which includes Rebecca Hall, Morgan Freeman, Paul Bettany and Cillian Murphy. Director Wally Pfister may be a first-timer, but since he's been Christopher Nolan's cinematographer since 1999's Memento and won an Oscar for his work on Inception, you might give him the benefit of the doubt.

A quick scan of the credits gives grounds for optimism about Transcendence, with Johnny Depp leading a copper-bottomed supporting cast which includes Rebecca Hall, Morgan Freeman, Paul Bettany and Cillian Murphy. Director Wally Pfister may be a first-timer, but since he's been Christopher Nolan's cinematographer since 1999's Memento and won an Oscar for his work on Inception, you might give him the benefit of the doubt.

Hence Transcendence frequently looks superb, and for a good chunk of its running time tweaks your attention with ideas about the (over) appliance of science and mankind's uneasy relationship with it. Yet well before the finishing tape its emotional heart has stopped beating, and the flick ends up as the blockbuster that never was (pictured below, Depp, Rebecca Hall and Paul Bettany).

Maybe it fell victim to the delusion that just because technology is such an obsessional part of our lives, it must therefore be thrilling on screen, but we've already seen how watching Wall Street crashing on computer screens or Julian Assange leaking secrets from his laptop aren't much more interesting than watching your fellow-commuters texting on a Blackberry. Thus, from the moment the brain of Dr Will Caster (Depp) gets uploaded into a computer system called PINN (Physically Independent Neural Network), it's not long before the movie's soul has left the building.

Jack Paglen's screenplay takes us to the "not-too-distant future", and Transcendence kicks off with Max Waters (Paul Bettany) strolling through a post-technological town in California, where the streets are littered with discarded smartphones, there's no power (or broadband or wi-fi or mobile networks), and local shopkeepers use old PC keyboards to wedge their front doors open. Waters sorrowfully visits the former home of his old buddies-in-science Will and Evelyn Caster, which looks like a hippy hangout in Laurel Canyon from 1972, then takes us back to see how everything went so woefully avocado-shaped.

Turns out that celebrity-boffin Caster was the world's leading researcher into Artificial Intelligence, and PINN is his annoyingly pleased-with-itself creation. However, so radical was Caster's vision of a technological brain cleverer than the accumulated history of human thought that his work triggered a backlash from a grim bunch of unwashed iLuddites calling themselves RIFT (anyone would think this movie secretly yearned to join the Marvel canon), who launched a string of murderous attacks against the brainiac community. Will was injured and the prognosis was bleak, but his wife Evelyn (Hall) did what any devoted partner might, and dumped the contents of his brain into PINN.

Depp, converted into a Big Brotherish image on a big screen, promptly mutates into an acquisitive superbeing (the "man-plays-god" theme having been vigorously semaphored from the start), and with Evelyn's assistance builds a scientific empire in the New Mexico desert. Soon he's giving Mother Nature herself a nano-tech makeover, but the FBI (in cahoots with the RIFT people, led by Kate Mara - pictured left - being even more sour-faced and self-obsessed than she was in House of Cards) decide he's going too far.

Somehow the flick's big ideas can't communicate themselves clearly. Post-human Will vacillates between cyber-Führer and eco-friendly deity, while his opponents are divided between earnest do-gooders and cynical rent-a-thugs reminiscent of the "private contractors" who asset-stripped Iraq. Indeed, the whole premise of a lone megalomaniac hijacking technology for his own ends feels quaintly 1950s-like in our era of ubiquitous, all-access connectivity. The film's choice of dystopias - between scientific progress running amok and lo-tech survivalism - just doesn't ring true. It's as if Transcendence wanted to be The Matrix, but ended up as a $100m episode of Doctor Who.

Overleaf: watch the trailer for Transcendence

The whole premise of a lone megalomaniac hijacking technology for his own ends feels quaintly 1950s-like

rating

Editor Rating: 
2
Average: 2 (1 vote)

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