Recent times have not been too kind to Johnny Depp: appearing in a series of commercial disappointments like the messy Dark Shadows, the (in my opinion grossly underrated) Lone Ranger and the dimwitted Mortdecai, and now his ex-wife Amber Heard has filed a restraining order against him. A fry cry from the days of Pirates of The Caribbean, Finding Neverland and Edward Scissorhands.
And yet, not two years back, one film looked set to bring him back from the fringes of commercial and critical ire: it had the backing of Warner Bros’ wunderkind, Christopher Nolan, directed by his master cinematographer Wally Pfister, with a thought-provoking script from Hollywood’s notorious Blacklist. Depp would play Dr.Will Caster, a brilliant scientist leading the way in self-aware AI and computers, believing they can lead to substantial benefits for mankind. However, a Luddite terrorist group called The Rift seeks to this, launching a series of attacks on major computer firms and scientists, including Caster. Dying from a shot, his wife Evelyn decides to upload his consciousness to a computer in a bid to save his intellect. Thus, a new half human, half cybernetic intelligence is born, and soon begins to grow when it enters the Internet.
Everything looked set to be a modern sci-fi classic, but then… the reviews came in. The film was declared pretentious, dull, tedious and completely misguided, with Pfister lacking even a fraction of his famous collaborator’s storytelling prowess. At times, the anger seemed to outmatch that directed at The Lone Ranger the previous year. But was it warranted, and if so, why? And if not, why?
Let’s get the easier bits out first:
On a visual level, the film is, as you’d expect from being directed by a veteran D.P., is slick and polished. From rainy cities to sterile labs and even sun-baked deserts, Pfister covers a broad selection of location and imagery, all shot on traditional film stock to give the footage a certain flowing smoothness that is hard to describe but fits the clash of old and new present in the story rather nicely. Likewise, the soundtrack by Ang Lee regular Mychael Dyanna is effective, supplying us with a mixture of your standard sci-fi synth with dashes of a chorus, as well as more melodic strings, especially towards the end with its use of strings as the Casters’ dream falls apart, and tinny percussion. I am not usually a fan of Dyanna’s works as I find his music to blend too much in the background and not have enough memorability to stand out, but here, it fits the theme of crossing evolutionary paths and creates a rather haunting atmosphere at times.
Performance-wise, despite being top billed, Depp is not really the main emotional focus of the film, but rather his wife, played by Rebecca Hall. She carries most of the baggage, and does so rather well, sharing her husband’s enthusiasm, but also being stuck in a sort of perpetual state of grief and doubt once he dies and is uploaded. Depp himself is good, and this is one of his most restrained performances in many years, but there’s not much to comment on. He starts out as an amiable guy and then becomes sort of neutral and cold when he’s uploaded. It works, but it’s not as layered as I had hoped.
As for the supporting players, they are all good but don’t get a huge amount to work with. The most substantial of the bunch is Paul Bettany as the Casters’ closest friend, who is the first to voice doubts about Will’s transcendence, and eventually aids the fight to stop him, and he works well, blending his doubts and worries with his genuine affection for the couple. Morgan Freeman and Cillian Murphy are fine but don’t get much and feel like marquee value.
And with that out-of-the-way, now comes the script.
Written by newcomer Jack Paglan, this will be a tricky one to dissect. On the one hand, its faults are shockingly glaring, given the talent involved. The main problem, and actually sort of opposite from my critical peers, is the really clunky opening and its blatant, narrative corner cutting: Within the first twenty or so minutes, we are introduced to our central cast, get given Will’s vision, meet the Rift, learn their plans, witness Caster’s murder, feel his wife’s grief and then she uploads him, along with the usual ‘this isn’t right’ spiel. See the problem yet?
Compressing so much information in such a short span of time not only means you don’t get to really know or get comfortable with the characters, but also means the intriguing ideas the film presents have no time to sink in or get explored, and we don’t know how the movie’s world reacts to them. A lot of good sci-fi is based on world building and context, and Transcendence comes out the gate tumbling. Pfister’s prior work with Nolan, outside of the visuals, mainly shows in the pacing, and throughout the first half, it’s completely at odds with the story. We have the kind of quick, thriller-like pacing from Inception, but it’s set to what is more of a high-concept drama. It’s like putting a Jaguar engine in a Fiat Punto.
The film is in such a rush that the interesting moral and ethical questions raised by this event, as well as the technology and research behind it, are given insufficient time to breathe, and considering this is a film all about these, that’s a problem. That heady stuff is relegated to maybe a few lines and then ‘next scene’, and is what I imagine turned many off.
On the other hand, no one can deny Transcendence’s ambitions, with its many huge ideas about artificial intelligence’s impact on our world starting to blossom in the second half when the pacing finally starts to match its content. From here, it becomes the film that would be titled Transcendence, seeing the effects of the Casters’ choices, and from a selection of different viewpoints. The characters start coming into their own here too, and those viewpoints are allowed to contrast and let you, the audience, decide on who you agree with. The Casters’ are making huge advancements in science and helping the environment, but Will is also using them to help propagate and expand his influence and control. The Rift and Will’s old friends are concerned about this and also how much of Will is left inside that computer, but there’s an element of paranoia of the future mixed in with them, a sort of comment on our own day-to-day fears of the Brave New World lurking around the corner.
All this builds to a rather sizeable climax, both emotionally and viscerally, that puts all of our characters in rather uncomfortable positions as to how far they’ll go to achieve their goals, and how our own arrogance can sometimes trump our best intentions. That last shot of the Casters amidst their disintegrating little kingdom still gives me chills. Frankly, I can’t agree with the complaints that the film is tiresome as it kept presenting me with interesting concepts throughout its runtime and giving me enough room in the second half to mull them over. It even made me recall the likes of slower burn, more thoughtful sci-fi affairs of the 60s and 70s, such as Phase IV (1974), the original Westworld (1973) and Logan’s Run (1976) in its approach and restraint ongoing whizz-bang until it was actually necessary.
The next Inception this most certainly isn’t, but despite its shortcomings, Transcendence was able to win me around, even if the road was filled with pitfalls. Paglan’s script, as far as I’ve heard, was tighter in earlier drafts, and had Pfister and his team stuck to that, the film would’ve most certainly been the next great science fiction film of our time. However, the inexperience and clunk do drag it down from greatness, to simply being good enough and even a touch admirable.