Johnny Depp has spent years building a reputation on playing interesting characters that differ from the norm. Nowadays however, he has moved into playing more mainstream and family-friendly parts e.g. Jack Sparrow, The Mad Hatter and Tonto and its is unusual for him to not to be dressed in makeup or wacky clothes. When it comes to playing it straight though, something that he hasn’t done since The Rum Diary or arguably The Tourist, it just doesn’t quite seem to work any more. Sadly this is also the case with his latest outing, Transcendence.
Whether rightfully or not, Depp commands a £20m fee, which is almost a fifth of the budget for the entire production of Transcendence. This salary may be warranted on a Pirates of the Caribbean movie, but on a fairly low-budget sci-fi film with a first time director; it seems unnecessary. Undoubtedly this figure should generate a great performance, but in his latest Depp gives quite the opposite. He looks bored and confused throughout and given his characters supposed passion for technology, he just isn’t convincing enough as the lead. He plays Will Caster a man who gets his brain uploaded to a computer by his wife (Rebecca Hall), when he is murdered.
This is Wally Pfister’s directorial debut having been Christopher Nolan’s cinematographer on The Dark Knight Trilogy and Inception. He was offered the chance to work with Nolan again on his upcoming thriller, Interstellar, but instead he chose to create his own piece based on Jack Paglen’s original screenplay. Nolan actually serves as a producer but unfortunately not even his influence can save this movie.
Transcendence actually has a great, high-concept premise, similar to a Nolan film; can someone’s mind be uploaded onto a computer in order to keep them alive after their death? It also explores the Technological Singularity issues resulting from this and the technophilia vs technophobia associated argument. The main problem the film has is that despite this intriguing story and multiple ideas, it is actually far too long, stretching the plot out to breaking point. It also fails to sustain all of these different theories and crumbles under the weight, becoming slow in places. It brings to mind an episode of Charlie Brooker’s television series, Black Mirror. This was similarly themed and at only an hour long was much better suited lengthwise.
Additionally there are some ridiculous twists, mainly involving Caster’s development of nanotechnology, which is a shame because the ideas of AI development are fascinating. With Caster uploaded onto the internet, it is implied that he has the ability to take over every computer in the world, but instead Pfister chooses to focus solely on a small backwater town in America. We never see the effect that Caster actually has on anywhere other than the confined setting or people around the area. It gives off the complete antithesis of the premise and restricts the scope and scale of the film. The stunt work is also amongst the ropiest ever witnessed on screen.
There are some nice touches to the cinematography nonetheless and Pfister’s background in this department is evident throughout. The CGI is brilliant and the scenes of Caster building his technological nirvana are seamless. There are also some beautifully slowed down moments of water droplets and flowers that bookend the film.
Ultimately this is a huge non-starter on what could have been a revolutionary and generation defining film. By association to Christopher Nolan, this was expected to be as trendsetting as some of his recent work, but it is let down by the acting and bloated running time. Depp is poor and the rest of the cast including Kate Mara, Morgan Freeman and Paul Bettany are underused and don’t fare much better. With roles in sequels to franchise films Alice in Wonderland and Pirates of the Caribbean coming up, Depp appears to now be suited to the camp, over-the-top, kid’s films that that he and we have now become accustomed to.