I wonder when it was, when exactly did the singularity cinephile shift occur from the announcement of a new Johnny Depp project being greeted with a feverish joyful screech to a resigned slump of the shoulders? Here was an actor adored by the ladies and blokes alike, possibly the most admired and envied of his generation who seemed effortlessly able to turn in outstanding performances in an incredibly eclectic range of films and movie genres, resolutely uncommercially minded fare mixing with challenging material and leftfield collaborators – Dead Man, Ed Wood, Edward Scissorhands, Donnie Brasko and Fear & Loathing to name just a few of my favourites. But then that maundering franchise boarded cineplexes the world over and he was catapulted to the head of the ‘A’ list just as his collaborations with his long time ally Tim Burton swiftly deteriorated into caricature and charmless stupidity, Alice In Wonderland (there will never, never be an excuse for this), Sweeny Todd, Charlie & The Chocolate Factory and Dark Shadows nesting nervously with the waterlogged atrocities of the Pirates franchise, The Lone Ranger and The Tourist. Even as the box-office tills kept ringing I knew the man had drifted so far from his muse that all was lost when in an interview he uttered that most damning revelation – ‘I’m making this one for my kids to see’. Really, you’re making a $200 million dollar project, serving your artistic muse for your fucking kids? Now strictly speaking I’m not necessarily of the opinion that artists ‘owe’ their audience anything, but that display of self-indulgent arrogance really makes me wince, and a symptom of Depp’s increasingly lazy and disjointed performances, a slow descent which is further accelerated in his new film Transcendence. As you’ve probably heard the film marks the directorial debut of regular Chris Nolan cinematographer Wally Psfiter and is culled from a script of the notorious black-list, blessed with a lavish star studded $100 million budget it is also a strangely incompetent movie, raising some pertinent queries of our time which are not even remotely explored as the film plunges into illogical and ruinous malfunctions- this is a terrible film.
Supra-genius & unconvincing futurist guru Dr. Will Caster (Johnny Depp, disembodied as he considers what to lavish his $20 million paycheck upon) makes some startling claims for human evolution, suggesting during a poorly attended TED talk that the future of life on our humble planet may rest within silicon sentience which inspires his research into a new breed of self-aware machinima. Unfortunately his views are somewhat controversial with a splinter group of pro-humanist terrorists known as the Revolutionary Independence From Technology led by a Occupied Bree (Kate Mara) whom assassinate Caster with a radioactive bullet rather than emptying an entire clip into his spectacled face, conveniently giving him enough time for his environmentally committed wife Evelyn (a cloying Rebecca Hall) and their scientific third wheel friend Max Waters (Paul Bettany) to attempt to upload his consciousness into the electronic infrastructure of his secret government project. After Caster is resurrected in the binary universe he embarks on a epoch shatteringly ambitious project out in a small Nevada town which may have catastrophic consequences for the human race, as FBI agent Donald Buchanan (Cillian Murphy) teams up with Waters to sideline the singularity while Morgan Freeman growls from the periphery with a gluttonous gravitas…..he’s, like some other government scientist or something whose colleagues have been slain by exploding cake. I’m not joking.
With the critical crucifixion occurring across the board (Mark Kermode being the only irritating exception, with this and his absurd championing of the Twilight movies he really has lost all credibility) I have to confess that my expectations were catastrophically low, with many of my on-line brethren speaking confidently of Transcendence being the worst film of the year – that dubious award still rests with Robocop as far as I’m concerned but this is still an inferior model of movie in almost every respect. After a reasonable half hour of establishing the story algorithms a serious malfunction corrupts the emotional and narrative flow, with utterly illogical occurrences and character switching allegiances via provocations which I can only assume are twitching on the cutting room floor. Quite how a film of this stature can repeatedly fail even a basic sense and coherence audit check is beyond me, as the absurd plot contortions stretch credulity and patience beyond breaking point. There is zero charisma between Hall and Depp whom as usual is as vacant and incorporeal as his characters binary birthed avatar, a fatal lack of connection since their bond is the films emotional CPU, character motivations and plot procedures glitching with a buzzing repetition (particularly irksome is Bettany’s genial scientist transforming into a weapon clad super soldier), before the usual gunfire led shenanigans inevitably infect the screen – it’s terrible, tedious and tiresome in the extreme. For all these failings they pale into comparison with what could have been before the CGI nanobots get flowing in unconvincing waves, and that’s the total failure to explore the films thematic erected infrastructure.
Queries on artificial intelligence and its usurping ambitions over its inferior human creator has a long and prestigious history in the cinematic genre constellation, from the obvious 1980’s signals of Blade Runner, Wargames and The Terminator which arose in tandem with those silicon valley pioneers, although you can detect earlier programmes such as a certain HAL9000 and other Menagerie favourite Colossus: The Forbin Project, hell if you really want to probe the memory banks then you could trace the lineage back to Shelley’s Frankenstein. These questions have become more vivid and fruitful in the intervening years as the march of technology and its increasing infiltration in all aspects of our lives – commerce, social media, communications, globalisation, entertainment, scientific advance and discovery, sex and reproduction – have become more persuasive and pernicious, but this film is several trillion googolplex from being anywhere near qualified to mine this potent intersecting territory, of the implications of the increasing physical and social infiltration with the digital. At best this feels like some 1990’s Dolph Lungren or Jean Claude Van Damme C list picture which happens to be burdened with a nine figure budget, using as a springboard some stories torn from the likes of Wired magazine which is given a confused lip-service before the inept action kinetics can be detonated. In the interests of balance the film does in places look terrific from a purely visual aesthetic so at least Pfister still retains some talent, however the film has seriously bombed throughout the world so I can’t see him getting another gig soon. For any real and tangible sense of the ghost in the machine rent Spike Jonze’s brilliant Her and leave Transcendence to its ignoble fate, a forgettable gremlin in the history of artificed interest;