Review: Transcendence


Johnny Depp is unleashed onto the web, and this time he’s more than just a Finding Neverland meme.

Transcendence (2014)

Transcendence poster (Australia)

Director: Wally Pfister

Writer: Jack Paglen 

Runtime: 119 minutes

StarringJohnny Depp, Morgan Freeman, Rebecca Hall, Kate Mara, Cillian Murphy, Cole Hauser, Paul Bettany

Distributor: Roadshow Films (Australia)


Rating: Better Than Average Bear (★★★½)

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If Hollywood was in a Facebook relationship with technology, it would read “It’s complicated”. For every filmmaker or studio to adopt the latest cutting edge shiny revolutionary thing, there is a corresponding film that is the cinematic equivalent of an eccentric millionaire in a tinfoil hat. Remember when Matthew Broderick inadvertantly started World War III from his bedroom in WarGames? Or how virtual reality threatened to turn greenskeepers into megalomaniacal VR denizens in Lawnmower Man? Can we ever trust a computer wearing tennis shoes again? With Transcendence, it’s Christopher Nolan’s protégé Wally Pfister wearing the ‘End is Nigh’ sandwich board, running through the streets and warning us about…something.

Jack Paglen’s script, from the depths of the infamous ‘black list’ of previously unproduced screenplays, initially focuses on Dr. Will Caster (Johnny Depp), a brilliant scientist who seeks to create a sentient computer. Together with his wife and partner in science stuff, Evelyn (Rebecca Hall), he predicts a future where ‘everything will change’: a “transcendence” if you will. However, when Caster is poisoned by the bullet of a group of anti-technologists, he is given a month to live. Despite the protests of colleague and BFF Max Waters (Paul Bettany), Evelyn uploads Caster’s consciousness to the really big computer thing they have all been working on. As the conspiracy fringe group R.I.F.T., led by Bree (Kate Mara), closes in the trio, Caster’s new home in the cloud begins to bring about some of that change he predicted.

Pfister, having already shot all of Nolan’s films since Memento, brings a certain sense of visual style to his directorial debut. The cool, some may say cold, aesthetic of long corridors and impossibly shiny computer banks is punctuated by some punchy set-pieces, but it’s designed as a talk-fest. It’s also largely Rebecca Hall’s film, with Depp confined largely to a series of screens, narrating his calculated global domination via nanotechnology. Bettany swaps his JARVIS persona in Iron Man for a sideline role, mostly getting captured, beaten and swapping sides because somebody has to be the voice of reason. Cillian Murphy turns up as a cop for some reason, while Morgan Freeman‘s Lucius Fox reprise is purely perfunctory.

With all the logic that ‘1s’ and ‘0s’ can afford it, viewers may find it difficult to fully connect with the leads or their schemes before an almost literal deus ex machina changes the course of humankind again (albeit temporarily). Yet Transcendence, for all of its heavy-handed hammering home of points (including a Nolan-esque final shot), manages to keep your attention by allowing some of its ideas to permeate your brain banks and let them settle for later. Although a slightly rushed denouement may undermine the less-than-subtle message, it’s still a highly relevant film for our age of ubiquitous connectivity.