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New Release Review - Transcendence

The consciousness of a dying scientist is uploaded to a computer network, but, lacking a soul, turns malevolent.

Directed by: Wally Pfister
Starring: Johnny Depp, Rebecca Hall, Morgan Freeman, Cillian Murphy, Kate O'Mara, Paul Bettany, Cole Hauser, Clifton Collins Jr, Xander Berkeley


Scientist Will Caster is working towards the creation of a sentient artificial intelligence when he is shot in an attack carried out by members of an extremist luddite group. The bullet is laced with radioactive material, polluting Will's system and giving him only weeks to live. His wife, Evelyn (Hall), convinces their colleague and friend, Max (Bettany), to help upload Will's consciousness to a highly advanced AI network, PINN. Max attempts to dissuade Evelyn but reluctantly agrees. Following Will's death, the experiment proves successful as he continues to live within PINN. Lacking a human soul, however, the new incarnation of Will becomes malevolent, implementing plans for world domination.
20 years ago, cinematographer Wally Pfister was the go-to guy for tastefully lit bedroom scenes in such straight to video erotic thrillers as Night Rhythms and Animal Instincts. In 2000, he was plucked from this world and given mainstream credibility by Christopher Nolan, who chose him to shoot his US debut Memento, kicking off a fruitful seven film collaboration. Thanks to his Nolan association, Pfister was awarded a $100 million budget for his directorial debut. The leap from cinematographer to director is one rarely taken and not since Jan de Bont's 1994 Speed has a former cameraman been granted such a high profile first time project.
It's a transition Pfister makes with ease, and the influence of Nolan reigns supreme throughout the visuals of Transcendence. But, as the old saying goes, you can't polish a turd, and no amount of classy imagery can make up for just how badly written this film is. The script, by first time writer Jack Paglen, had previously resided on Hollywood's infamous "black list" of unproduced screenplays and there it should have remained.
In today's web obsessed world, Paglen might well believe his script prescient, but in its complete misunderstanding of how technology functions, Transcendence resembles a lost sci-fi movie from 1983, a companion piece to movies like War Games and Brainstorm. If you watch the film with this in mind it will help numb the pain somewhat but this tactic will only get you so far. Whereas those movies from three decades ago were, to a certain degree, aware of how preposterous their premises were, Transcendence's tongue never veers remotely close to its cheek. Pfister and Paglen want their story to be taken seriously but once we've seen Depp's consciousness uploaded  to cyberspace, merely by attaching a few sensors to his shaven head while he recites the Oxford dictionary, it's too much of an ask. Besides, little effort is made to craft a coherent plot, with unexplained twists pulled out of thin air with no explanation granted to the viewer.
Along with Nolan, Pfister has shown a professional reluctance to adopt digital video over traditional film. Like his Nolan collaborations, Transcendence is shot on film and its visual sheen backs up Pfister's stance on this matter. Perhaps then he was the perfect choice to helm a movie with such a luddite premise. 
At this point in time, film is still superior to its digital rival, but you don't have to be a psychic to know that pretty soon that will no longer the case. You would, however, require psychic abilities to predict a scientist will someday upload his consciousness to the web and threaten the world. That's the leap made by the luddite terrorists led by Kate Mara here in assassinating Depp. It's a bit like killing a teenage Austrian art student called Adolf Hitler in 1906. That the movie ends up justifying the murderous actions of terrorists leaves a nasty taste in the mouth.
If you're still living in the bunker you constructed in 1999 to survive the then impending Y2K apocalypse, Transcendence will likely be your favourite film. It's a shame you'll never see it.
4/10


Eric Hillis

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