Russell Baillie

Russell Baillie is the Herald’s entertainment editor

Movie review: Transcendence

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Johnny Depp chalks up another terrible movie in yet another genre in Transcendence.
Johnny Depp chalks up another terrible movie in yet another genre in Transcendence.

Usually Johnny Depp arrives on our screens with extravagant headwear and enough facepaint to start his own clown troupe.

This time though he's Dr Will Caster, a Silicon Valley scientist who, between inventing the future of artificial intelligence, is on the cover of that month's Wired magazine and doing TED talks.

So no hat or slap for Depp this time, just sensible spectacles to make him look like a contemporary genius from something approximating the real world.

That might sound all very well. But about now alarm bells should be sounding.

Because outside his amusing Pirates of the Caribbean gigs and his Tim Burton films, Depp has managed to deliver forgettable and occasionally terrible movies in just about every genre.

Well, he can tick off "techno-fear sci-fi thriller" on that list now too.

After a promising beginning, Transcendence eventually becomes terrible, a film of ostensibly smart characters deciding to do dumb things then acting surprised at the consequences.

And they are doing that in a movie which puts forward some much-asked questions about humanity and technology but, failing to come up with any interesting answers, hopes that morphing into an underwhelming action flick will at least keep us awake until the end.

It's the directing debut of Christopher Nolan's cinematographer Walter Pfister. So yes, some of it looks nice and some of it looks like a Nolan movie - it employs a couple of Nolan regulars like Morgan Freeman and Cillian Murphy to class up the joint but who mostly end up on the periphery, attempting to be the voice of reason.

Even Depp is kind of absent and his lack of spark in a role that actually depends on electricity makes Transcendence a film that feels strangely hollow.

Depp's Caster starts off as a lovable geek whose marriage with fellow boffin Evelyn (Rebecca Hall) is a true post-doctorate fellowship.

They live and work together, share their own research laboratory apparently funded by the likes of real Wired cover stars like Elon Musk (seen in a cameo) and where they are surrounded by like-minded big-brains belonging to Joseph Tagger (Freeman) and Max Waters (Paul Bettany).

Caster becomes one of the targets of a "neo-Luddite terrorist group" RIFT (Revolutionary Independence From Technology) led by Bree (Kate Mara) who doesn't like the way big-tech is heading.

Their attacks leave Caster slowly dying of radiation poisoning.

But there's enough time to make a back-up of himself. Will has his brain uploaded by Evelyn and - despite his ethical reservations - Max into Caster's very own offline supercomputer.

But under attack by RIFT again, Will is allowed out into cyberspace and he's off on a mission of seemingly benevolent megalomania, while appearing on screen as a hi-def Max Headroom, all disembodied bass-boosted voice and flickering pixels for his (inter)face.

Yes, he's a man with his head in the Cloud.

He tells Evelyn to set-up a solar-powered lab next to a town in the middle of nowhere.

Soon he's using nanotech wizardry to heal the sick while Evelyn starts to have a few reservations about life with her digitised hubby.

It's the little things that irritate - like his fake chewing sounds at dinner time. Or his surveillance of her biochemical fluctuations when he asks how's she feeling.

But by that stage we've long stopped caring about the Will and Evelyn love story.

It's not just that Depp's character isn't very present, Hall's Evelyn becomes increasingly insipid when her character should be the story's grounding point.

She ends up as one-dimensional as Depp, who spends most of Transcendence Skyping it in.


Cast: Johnny Depp, Rebecca Hall, Paul Bettany, Morgan Freeman
Director: Walter Pfister
Rating: M (violence)
Running time: 119 mins
Verdict: Computer thriller stuck in sleep mode

- TimeOut

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