THE CABLE GUY
When a new film is labelled ‘science fiction’, the audience would usually tend to picture outer space, aliens, the future, dystopia, high fantasy and many, many robots. However, it is Wally Pfister’s Transcendence which actually deserves to be called ‘science fiction’- a stylised thriller exploring a very real and very topical area of science (the ability of artificial intelligence to bear human consciousness and the idea of ‘The Singularity’) in a moderately but realistically fantastical context.
Johnny Depp takes the headline role as Dr Will Caster, a shy genius on the brink of an Earth-shattering technological breakthrough. As can be seen in the film’s trailers (and is hence not considered a spoiler), Caster dies very early on in the film (his final few weeks of life, at the side of his wife- Rebecca Hall- and friend- Paul Bettany- are the most moving portion of the film) after being shot with a poisoned bullet by a member of the anti-technology terrorist group RIFT. Soon after his death, his wife Evelyn (Hall) manages to upload his consciousness to a digital network, creating an online AI version of Caster! From this point, everything goes a bit Her-shaped, as Hall walks and drives about, chatting away to Depp through an earpiece all the time. The question the viewer must ask oneself is: would you rather watch Joaquin Phoenix running on a beach while Scarlett Johansson sings seductively to you, or sit through two hours of Rebecca Hall wandering around a field of satellites and servers with Johnny Depp saying things like “I am still here, Evelyn”, “I will always be here, Evelyn” and “We can change the world, Evelyn”?
I have, along with many other people, developed very negative feelings towards Johnny Depp in recent years due to his work in such fare as Dark Shadows and Alice In Wonderland (both Tim Burton films, might I add). He underplays his performance as Caster just enough to be tolerable in Transcendence, but you can still see the attention-craving lunatic that Depp often becomes lurking in his eyes. Although he is (unsurprisingly) at the forefront of the marketing, Depp’s Caster is not the star here, and it isn’t just because he dies early on! No- even when his face is popping up on monitors all around, Caster isn’t a complex enough character, or one with enough choices to make, to command the screen and capture the audience’s attention. Rebecca Hall and Paul Bettany are the film-redeeming central pair, both doing excellent work and saving many an uninspired chunk of dialogue from destroying the scene. Morgan Freeman and Cillian Murphy (the latter in particular) are both as insanely underused as always in two throwaway roles, and Kate Mara and Lukas Haas as RIFT members? Well, they’re just happy to be getting big-screen roles!
Considering how visually astounding Inception and The Dark Knight trilogy were, it’s surprising just how uninteresting most of the visuals in Transcendence are. Pfister hasn’t acted as his own DP here, but he surely had a large say in the light and colour. The opening and closing flash-forwards are eye-catchingly flashy in their texture, but the major set-pieces look like they could be taken from a TV show.
Carrying very interesting ideas in one hand, dropping them on the floor and breaking them every few minutes, Transcendence is not a good first child for Wally Pfister, nor a good parent for the characters and story it is responsible for doing justice. Transcendence is as entertaining as any Hollywood B-thriller but fails to be special in any way outside of Hall and Bettany’s superb performances.