Sunday, 25 May 2014

"We're not going to fight them, we're going to transcend them."

Christopher Nolan's (The Dark Knight Rises) long-time collaborator and Inception (2010) Director of Photography, Wally Pfister makes his directorial debut with a great looking technology thriller that seeks to reconcile brain and brawn. Asking such big questions as the nature of consciousness and the existence of the soul while also acting as a meditation on love and loss.

Transcendence sees Dr. Will Caster (Johnny Depp), the foremost researcher in the field of Artificial Intelligence, on the verge of creating a sentient machine capable of assimilating all recorded information to boast the total knowledge of every human who's ever lived. Hasn't man always strived to create God? he asks one morally aghast detractor, and is promptly shot by anti-technology extremists.

Caster dies from the attack, but not before he oversees his scientist wife Evelyn (Rebecca Hall) and best friend Max (Paul Bettany) in the feeding of his own brain into the machine. At first everything appears rosy, with the upgraded Caster promising to cure Alzheimer's disease while plugging into security cameras all across America to clean up the streets.

But he soon crosses moral lines, turning dozens of people into a regenerating army with a collective consciousness. And it's here where the films problems truly start.

To their credit, Pfister and screenwriter Jack Paglen retain an ambivalence regarding technological promise versus peril throughout, but the musings are too surface-deep and second-hand. Worse still, for a movie that grows ever more ludicrous – science fiction turns to science fantasy – it's oddly monotonous.

Transcendence is, at it's heart, a B-movie with zombies, explosions and a bad robot, but with its event-movie budget and heavyweight cast (Nolan regulars Morgan Freeman and Cillian Murphy are also on board) it strives for humourless significance when it should be cutting loose.

Depp fans too are likely to feel short-changed. While it's a role that finally sees him play a somewhat ordinary everyman, replete with cardigan and tortoise-shell spectacles, it mostly requires just his face on a screen.

For a reported $20m fee, it's hard not to joke about him Skypeing in his performance – especially given he indicates higher intelligence and lost humanity by delivering a flat, emotionless vocal.

Ultimately, while Pfister should be applauded for making a non-franchise property with ideas and aspirations, Transcendence is nowhere near as grand as its title suggests. Gleaming visuals aside, it's a  banal science fiction slog that aims high but falls far.

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