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Transcendence – film review

April 24, 2014


How green was my uncanny valley?

Reviewed on Wednesday 23rd April 2014

transcendence johnny depp

Directed by Wally Pfister. Written by Jack Paglen. Starring: Johnny Depp, Rebecca Hall, Paul Bettany, Cillian Murphy, Kate Mara, Cole Hauser and Morgan Freeman. Running time: 119 mins.

When A.I. researcher Will Caster is mortally wounded in an assassination attempt, his consciousness is uploaded to the digital realm where he proceeds to implement an agenda which may well change the world – but for the better?

There have been plenty of examples of cinematographers successfully making the transition from DP to director: Freddie Francis (The Creeping Flesh), Nicolas Roeg (Don’t Look Now), Barry Sonnenfeld (Men In Black) and Jan De Bont (Speed) – just   to name a few. Now added to this list is Wally Pfister – a British DP best known for his work with The Dark Knight director Christopher Nolan.

A hi-tech sci-fi thriller considered a modern take on Brett Leonard’s mediocre 1992 virtual reality movie The Lawnmower Man; Pfister’s film is admitedly similar in     some respects. And considering all the negativety and bile being hurled at Pfister’s directorial debut (well, upon its North American release anyway), I have to admit – I went into this film not expecting to be engaged by it as much as I ultimately was. While the set-up during the first half hour or so appears awkward and lacks focus, once the narrative kicks in proper – the film becomes far more compelling. My initial lack of connect has much to do with the way the dogged determination of Evelyn Caster (Rebecca Hall) to upload her partner’s consciousness is played, following the attempt on Will’s life. As we see very little of the couple’s normal interaction prior to this, her sudden and almost hysterical resolve lacks authenticity. It would have been nice to have seen more of an emotional connect between the two earlier, in order to make Evelyn’s motivation seem more believable.

One of the widest criticisms the film has received is the ambiguity regarding the Johnny Depp character (once he has been uploaded). While some have taken issue with the fact that it is unclear whether the A.I.’s intentions are evil or benevolent until the very end of the film – I would argue this ambiguity and constant toing and froing is perhaps the movie’s greatest strength and part of what makes the film so compelling. Depp himself has also been criticised as being somewhat unemotional and aloof in his acting. Towards the end, however, he does really well in capturing the sense of the uncanny valley in his performance (the term ‘uncanny valley’ being the concept     in robotics which posits that when human features look and move almost, but not exactly, like natural human beings, it causes a response of acute anxiety among some people). With this concept in mind, Depp’s performance in Transcendence       is actually very effective in conveying this particular aesthetic.

As one would expect from a film directed by such a celebrated cinematographer, Transcendence is a gorgeous-looking film and Pfister’s direction is solid and capable, without being overly derivative or showy. I did notice though, the way he portrays the mind-controlled human workers who carry out the A.I.’s bidding is very similar in many respects to those seen in the classic 1950s sci-fi movie It Came from Outer Space – clearly a touchstone. The screenplay by first-timer Jack Paglen; while positing some intriguing ideas; is nonetheless prone to the usual silliness and implausibilities which tend to plague big budget studio fare these days (the FBI’s subterranean raid on Will’s compound being particularly noteworthy). But having     said that, it is still heartening to see new screenwriters with original material (Non-Stop also comes to mind) are once again being considered as potential stock for fresh ideas.

Transcendence is an engaging (if superficial) addition to the ‘artificial intelligence     as god’ genre with a moving finale which is completely unexpected – and yet oddly satisfying on an emotional level.

3.5 stars out of 5

Star ratings: 1 – poor / 2 – below average / 3 – good / 4 – excellent / 5 – unmissable

Viewed at the Palace-Nova Eastend Cinemas, Adelaide, April 23rd 2014.

Greg Moss is a film school graduate with a background in directing music videos     and is currently seeking representation as a screenwriter. He likes creative people, feeding the cat and watching genre movies. Greg can also be heard on the Blu-ray commentary track for the 1980 sci-fi thriller Saturn 3, out now from Scream Factory.


From → film reviews

  1. Really curious about this film. The trailer reminded me of FLATLINERS, a film I enjoyed back in the day which I suddenly realise I haven’t seen in, oh, ages. Certainly its got a spectacular cast, but like THE COUNSELLOR, I wonder would it be a better film with a cast of unknowns? Established ‘stars’ bring the baggage of all their past screen personnas, I often think films like this would work better with unknowns, although that said, would such a movie even get greenlit without ‘star’ names? Guess not, but it would temper audience expectations. I well remember what happened with BLADE RUNNER starring a post-Han Solo/Indiana Jones Harrison Ford. People expected one thing and got quite another, and the film tanked because of it.

    I guess what I’m saying is, I don’t think Johnny Depp is the right guy to lead a film like this one.

    • gregory moss permalink

      Hmmm … I’m not entirely convinced a lesser-known cast would have made The Counsellor any less ugly and mean-spirited than it already is! (not a fan as you know) 🙂 And you’re right – pretty much anyone could fill Depp’s role in this film. But it’s such a rarity to see him in a movie these days without resorting to tons of prosthetics (let alone sporting a dead crow on his head). I’m not entirely sure what attracted him to the part – as there isn’t anything inherently whacky to the character. Some have suggested he’s channeling Steve Jobs, but I suspect it’s more likely he’s doing Carl Sagan.

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