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Transcendence review: Johnny Depp stars in clunky sci-fi fable

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Director: Wally Pfister Screenwriter Jack Paglen; Starring: Johnny Depp, Rebecca Hall, Paul Bettany, Morgan Freeman, Kate Mara Running time: 119 mins; Certificate: 12A

In the hotly-awaited directorial debut of Christopher Nolan's longtime bravura cinematographer Wally Pfister, a pioneering scientist (Johnny Depp) has his consciousness digitally replicated. The preserved version of Will Castor looks like him, talks like him, thinks like him, and yet there is something fundamentally wrong with this avatar. He makes the wrong decisions, behaves in ways that the old Will never would – all the constituent parts are there, but the soul is gone. Sound familiar, Depp fans?

The ponderous and clunky Transcendence, already a commercial and critical flop in the US, marks the lowest point yet in what has been a depressing career downslide for Depp. While The Lone Ranger and The Rum Diary had their issues, Depp himself remained an engaging (and engaged) presence - in Transcendence, though, he's sleepwalking.

This used to be an actor who could elevate sub-par material with sheer ingenuity and force of personality, and while he doesn't actively make Jack Paglen's leaden script worse, he certainly doesn't improve it.

Transcendence

Morgan Freeman, Cillian Murphy and Rebecca Hall in Transcendence


That burden falls to his co-stars Rebecca Hall and Paul Bettany, who give emotionally grounded turns as, respectively, Will's idealistic wife Evelyn and skeptical best friend Max. Will and Evelyn are on the brink of a major breakthrough in their efforts to create a sentient artificial intelligence, but a coordinated attack from an anti-AI extremist group leaves Will with lethal radiation poisoning.

Desperate to save him in whatever form she can, Evelyn devises a way to upload Will's consciousness to their AI system, keeping him as essentially a high-tech brain in a jar. She's ecstatic with the results, but Max insists that "the intelligence" isn't Will's true self, and might in fact be something more dangerous. No prizes for guessing who's right.

The strangest thing about Paglen's script is how out of step it feels with modern technology - it could have been lingering in a drawer since the mid-'90s, so outmoded is its tone.

The strangest thing about Paglen's script is how out of step it feels with modern technology - it could have been lingering in a drawer since the mid-'90s, so outmoded is its tone - setting aside one lip-service mention of "smartphones and social media". There's an interesting film to be made about the mindset behind social media, particularly in relation to the idea of a man uploading his entire identity to the web, but this is a long way from being it.

This wouldn't matter at all if Transcendence were content to be a knowingly schlocky, high-concept B movie that pits man against machine in familiar ways, but it has pretensions to being something much more. Paglen's script is loaded with portentous dialogue that sounds (ironically) robotic; "I admire the way you wrestle with the tension between technology's promise and its peril," Kate Mara's anti-AI anarchist tells Bettany, deadpan.

Pifster remains a masterful cinematographer, and the film's visual crispness lends it a sense of cohesion that would otherwise be lacking, but this does little to make the viewing experience less of a chore. In an age where sequels, remakes and "expanded universes" are ruling genre cinema, it's disheartening to see a piece of original sci-fi come out so generic.

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