Transcendence review (Blu-ray)

Cinematographer Pfister – known for making Christopher Nolan’s films look breath-taking – marks his directorial debut by packing his film with a host of actors who have worked in the Nolan universe, then asking Hollywood megastar Depp to lead the way.

Artificial Intelligence doctor Will Caster (Depp) is working to create an omniscient, sentient machine. But when Caster is shot with a poisonous bullet, he – along with his girlfriend Evelyn (Hall) and best buddy Max (Bettany) – decides to use his last few weeks to upload his consciousness to a mainframe called PINN. As Caster passes, his AI is uploaded to computers that have the ability to transcend the human brain. Yet a radical anti-technology organisation, led by Bree (Mara), is seeking to stop the beginning a world ruled by a large data centre.

Some would agree that we don’t interact enough as human beings these days, preferring to do it through the medium of computers, smartphones and social media. So when Transcendence begins,it feels as though it is preaching this message: be free and leave your electronic devices behind. Yet as the film moves along it turns into a by-the-numbers tale of a megalomaniac (human or otherwise) wanting to control everything possible – the stock market seems to be the place computer Caster wants to initially take over. The film's first and second hour are at odds with each other; the first 60 minutes plod along, establishing the all-seeing eye and its train of thought, only for it to forget all that in the second 60 minutes and create a war that throws in some action and mind-numbing jargon that loses all the perilous warnings it created. On top of that, Pfister is unable to break the film out of such a drab state of plot affairs that never at any point is a conclusion reached as to what its stance on AI is. It also leaves many of the questions raised unanswered: how can a small town in the desert get such great internet access? Why don’t they just unplug him when it becomes too much? Why does it take so long for the resistance to act? Why are these rebels using computers to plan their attack if Caster can see all? Why does the PC not recognise the printer?

But it’s not just the story that lacks conviction; it’s also missing from most actors in Transcendence. Depp continues his career downward spiral, and brings along an accent that fluctuates throughout the entire film. Hall’s tough emotional journey starts strong but is soon pushed aside to see her not question anything once Caster is uploaded. Bettany, Mara, Freeman and Murphy all have so little to really do apart from be dragged along by a script that wastes all their talent. Pfister still shows his wonderful cinematography side during Transcendence, yet it’s the heavy script and stilted (and humourless) direction that ultimately unplugs this film from the mainframe.

EXTRAS ★★ The featurette What Is Transcendence? (5:16); the featurette Wally Pfister: A Singular Vision (2:49); the featurette Guarding The Threat (2:14); the featurette The Promise of A.I (2:30); and three short teaser videos narrated by Depp and Freeman - It's Me (0:58), Singularity (1:05), and R.I.F.T (0:54).

Stuart O'Connor is the Managing Editor of Screenjabber, the movie review website he co-founded with Neil Davey far too many years ago. He likes all genres, as long as the film is good (although he does enjoy the occasional bad "guilty pleasure"), and drinks way too much coffee.

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