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Johnny Depp and the Dense in 'Transcendence'

Transcendence is a film where, when the world’s first ever human brain upload doesn’t work, the people responsible fix it by turning the computer off and on again. Transcendence is a film where someone says “Love contains logical impossibilities… a machine can’t reconcile that”, because the best way to defeat an evil computer is by confusing it with love. Transcendence is a film where, when someone embraces a robotic reconstruction of their loved one, the robot’s face falls off to reveal a mass of wires and circuits that couldn’t possibly operate a human face. The scariest thing about Transcendence? Only one of those previous sentences is a joke.

The warning sirens start early in this tale of computing once again run amok, with a grim future where computers are doorstops, mobile phones are trash in the street, and everyone sits around looking really, really bored like they don’t even know what a book is. Through this mellow, chilled-out wasteland wanders Max Waters (Paul Bettany), a man who, with no internet to distract him (though rumour has it that Boston has power and Denver has a phone network, so the pieces are in place for a prank call revival) has nothing better to do than remember how this all started, five long years ago…

Wait a second: this story about how we have to be terrified that computers are going to turn evil and take over the world is only set “five years ago”? And not in, say, 1991? Because that’s when just about every theme and piece of technology seen here first started turning up in movies (and movies usually lag a good decade or more behind written science fiction when it comes to ideas). There’s nothing going on here that couldn’t be done using giant reel-to-reel tape drives and computers the size of a room – in fact, it pretty much was done in the last Captain America movie in a flashback set in the early 70s. And that movie had much better fights.

Anyway, in this thrilling past where the internet is king, the scruffy because brilliant Will Caster (Johnny Depp) is at the forefront of research into creating artificial intelligence, largely because a sinister terrorist group has murdered everyone else in the field (in one case, with a poison birthday cake) while he was off giving a TED Talk-style chat titled “Evolve the Future”. Unsurprisingly, considering when asked “aren’t you trying to create a god” he replies “sure, why not”, he then gets shot.

At first he seems fine, but it turns out the “radical neo-luddites” from UNPLUG (or is it R.I.F.T.? This is a movie that can’t get enough of bad acronyms – the basic model Artificial Intelligence here is called P.I.N.N, for Physically Independent Neural Network) shot him with a radioactive bullet and now he’s dying. According to his wife Evelyn (Rebecca Hall), obviously the solution is to upload his brain into one of the supercomputers they just have lying around. Yes this is a movie where a radioactive bullet gives our hero superpowers. Alternate title: NUMBER ONE WITH A BULLET.

Rather than do any of the sensitive brain scanning in a hospital, they hole up in a grubby abandoned school – take that old-fashioned learning, the internet has made you obsolete – which may not be the most hygienic place to drill holes into a dying man’s skull but at least they’ve put on scrubs for the job. Is Max Waters even a medical doctor? We do see him soldering some stuff together in his spare time, and that's not really much different from a living brain when you think about it. Better yet, don't. And why does the brain scan seem to just involve Will reading the dictionary out loud? Because traditionally scene after scene of that doesn’t make for riveting viewing.

Sadly the uploading sequence is not a shot-for-shot remake of those anti-piracy warnings (“you wouldn’t steal a handbag”) where someone turns off their computer 90% of the way through an illegal download. Even though “you wouldn’t steal Johnny Depp’s brain” probably would put people off piracy. So the brain theft all works out, especially for Depp, who now can skype the rest of his performance in. Alternate title: DON’T BELIEVE THE SKYPE.

Unfortunately new powered by Intel Will 2.0 pretty much instantly starts demanding to be connected to Wall Street, which even Max thinks is seriously evil. But who cares what he thinks, because he’s promptly captured by R.I.F.T and thrown in a cage for two years while the entre middle act of the movie goes on without him.

It’s easy to make fun of this films clunky details – and don’t worry, there’s more to come – but it doesn’t even get the basics right. It’s not that the performances are obviously bad; they’re low energy but that seems to have been the point, as Depp has to play things distracted early on so we’re never really sure if his uploaded version is evil or just a little “off”. But the script spends the entire middle basically just ticking off items on a list of cool yet evil things an intelligent computer could do. Alternate title: TRIUMPH OF THE WILL.

Now set up in a crapsack desert town called Brightwood (some wag has altered the town sign to read “Blightwood” – zing!) to take advantage of the depressed local residents and the most evil power source there is – solar power – Cyber-Will and Evelyn have invented magic nanobots that can heal any injury… if you don’t mind having a giant metal brain scar on your head. Good news though: you get a free scar-concealing hat with every cyber-resurrection. 

Unfortunately, this does mean that Will is going to turn all of humanity into a hive mind via his new “Hybrids” (clearly calling them “Cybrids” was seen as beneath even this film). This is the kind of global threat that can only be countered by the government and R.I.F.T. teaming up to dig holes in the hope that one of the hive zombies will fall in. Seriously. That’s their plan. And they also have a cannon from WWII to shoot at Will’s solar array to try and stop him. It’s possible that this film may have had some budget problems.

By now you may have gotten the impression that there’s a lot that’s frustrating about this film. “Whoever or whatever it is, it’s building an army out there” is a line someone was paid to write. ”The only way to stop it is to shut down the internet” – again, someone collected a pay check for that. And despite a long career as the cinematographer behind Christopher Nolan’s films, first time director Wally Pfister seems to go out of his way to make every scene look as bland as humanly possible.

What’s really frustrating though is that there are still occasional glimmers of a decent movie here. Evelyn’s transition from someone so glad she’ll do anything to have her dead husband back to someone trapped in an abusive and controlling relationship could have been interesting if the film did more than glance at it. Having the radical neo-luddites go from bad guys to good guys to maybe bad guys again could have been interesting if they film had actually done something with that shifting moral stance.

But the whole thing is so convinced its grab-bag of played-out 20 year old ideas is a terrifying glimpse into our future that telling an interesting story never gets a look in. No wonder all the people in the grim computer-free future looked so bored; they’d already lived through this. 

Anthony Morris

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