Written by Jack Paglen
Directed by Wally Pfister
United Kingdom, China, and USA, 2014
It’s been more than a decade since Johnny Depp moved from being a bundle of quirky nerves in the body of a heartthrob to a full-fledged movie star, and it may be the worst thing that happened to his career. Depp’s MVP-like turn as the louche Captain Jack Sparrow in Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl was stunning to audiences worldwide; he managed to appear in a big-budget blockbuster based on a theme-park attraction without seemingly selling out, crafting an utterly daffy and instantly iconic character. And in many ways, it has been Depp’s creative undoing. He’s able to choose whatever projects he wants now, as many of his bigger films are prone to grossing a billion dollars at the box office, even the garish Alice in Wonderland. Now, for some reason, he chose to play a major role in the new film Transcendence, which is odd considering that he all but sleepwalks through the performance.
Depp plays Dr. Will Caster, a scientist interested in the concept of transcendence, better known in common parlance as the singularity; he firmly believes that a machine with the ability to be sentient and self-aware is right around the corner, and has the technology to prove it. But early in Transcendence, he’s shot by an anti-tech (or anti-transcendence, perhaps) protester, and though he recovers from the initial wound, it turns out the bullet had a radiation-poisoning kicker. His wife Evelyn (Rebecca Hall) becomes convinced that the only way to save Will is to upload his consciousness to a supercomputer, in spite of their mutual friend Max’s (Paul Bettany) warnings that no computer can replicate the real, physical Will, who’s soon to die. The risky experiment works, though, and Evelyn can’t part from Will, which becomes awfully troublesome once he decides to acquire as much power as he can, no matter the cost.
The first sign of trouble in Transcendence comes almost instantly, as we open 5 years in the future with weary narration from Max as he returns to Will and Evelyn’s home in Berkeley, California. This framing device is completely useless; Max’s narration only appears in the opening and closing scenes, and the actual footage essentially repeats itself. We see the same shot of him walking down a post-apocalyptic street next to a corner store that’s almost out of its meager stock at the beginning and end, as if director Wally Pfister thinks we might’ve forgotten where Max is in the future to begin with. The story burrowed inside the framing device is strangely as low-key and lacking in momentum as Depp’s sleepy work as Will. (An apologist could argue that once Will’s computerized, he wouldn’t act very emotional, but that’s a thin argument at best. One of the great performances in science fiction is from the voice of Douglas Rain, as the neurotic computer Hal 9000 in 2001: A Space Odyssey. A monotonous voice doesn’t equal a predictably monotonous performance.) Not Hall or Bettany, or even co-stars Morgan Freeman or Cillian Murphy, raise the film’s pulse by that much. This, in spite of the fact that, from the very first moments, we are made aware that the characters’ actions affect the entire planet.
On a technical level, Transcendence is primarily of interest as Pfister’s directorial debut after working for many years as a cinematographer on Christopher Nolan’s films. (It’s easy to imagine that Freeman and Murphy’s contributions to this film are thanks to their work with Pfister and Nolan in the Batman trilogy.) Though Transcendence is a particularly bland story, Pfister’s work behind the camera is no more or less competent than that of most big-budget directors. It may not be as arresting a debut as Following (or Nolan’s American debut, Memento), but Pfister’s eye as a director of photography has transferred to feature directing decently. The real problem is the script, by Jack Paglen; its status as a Black List entry from a couple of years ago doesn’t explain away its poor development of the key relationship between Will and Evelyn. So much of the first 30 minutes feels like a series of montages, leading up to the death of Will’s body, if not his mind; we assume that Will and Evelyn have a deep and passionate romance, but only because we are told it is so. Will tells Max how much he cares for Evelyn, and she tells Max the same about Will. Sometimes, Max tells them how much they care for each other. But we don’t see it, as much as have it repeated ad hominem until it’s time to move on.
At best, Transcendence is a forgettable piece of science fiction, using the recent talking point of the singularity as a way to kickstart a meager blend of melodrama and action. In truth, while Depp may be the most famous sleepwalker here, none of the actors appears particularly engaged in the material. (Hall comes closest, though her character, as written, is hard to pin down.) The concept of fusing human consciousness with the virtual world is inherently fascinating, and offers a ton of exciting avenues to explore. This film gives most of those avenues lip service, but is either unwilling or unable to engage with the deeper issues at hand. For Johnny Depp, Transcendence goes down as another chink in his movie-star armor, though to be fair, it’s hard to imagine any actor selling a clunker like “We’re not going to hurt them, we’re going to transcend them” to anyone, including themselves.
— Josh Spiegel