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Transcendence (5/10)

by Tony Medley

Runtime 119 minutes.

OK for children.

In the real old days, science fiction was about trips to the moon and space travel (Flash Gordon & Buck Rogers). Then it became loony with ridiculous superheroes like Superman and Batman. Unfortunately, we are still burdened by those preposterous tales.

Recently, however, artificial intelligence has reared its ugly head. This resulted in the truly idiotic film, Her, last year and now this one, which is akin to Her in that we are asked to believe that a disembodied “intelligence” lives inside a computer that can think and feel and reason.

Directed by first timer Wally Pfister and written by first timer Jack Paglen, this is yet another film with Johnny Depp in which we are asked to accept that he is a superstar in the mold of Cary Grant or Paul Newman. But I can’t for the life of me think of any film that he’s been in that I enjoyed enough to want to watch again. Those Pirates of the Caribbean movies are so bad as to be unwatchable even once. He keeps showing up in things like Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and Alice in Wonderland but do any of those films ever make anyone’s list of best 1,000 films?

Here he isn’t even asked to display any range whatsoever as he is basically an unemotional face on a computer screen. In fact, I would suggest that another actor might have been able to do it much better because Johnny adds absolutely nothing to a film that does contain fine performances by Rebecca Hall as his wife and Paul Bettany as a good friend.

The story, that Johnny’s intelligence and ability to reason and plan are uploaded to a computer network before he dies and he basically takes over the world, isn’t a new idea.  A similar plot about artificial intelligence taking over the world was first presented over 40 years ago in 1970 in Colossus: The Forbin Project, a film that ended with two supercomputers communicating with one another and then controlling everything at fade out. The big difference between the two films is that the two supercomputers had no personality or ability to carry on a conversation with humans, whereas Depp’s existence in the computer is like he is still alive. Colossus was much better and much more believable than this one. Directed by Joseph Sargent, it made one leave the theater uncomfortable about what had just been seen and continuing to think about it, unlike Transcendence, which is just too implausible. In this it is not unlike Inception (2010) in which we were asked to believe that people could physically inhabit someone else’s dreams and work together to accomplish something. Good science fiction needs to have a modicum of believability to capture the fancy of an audience.

On the upside the cinematography (Jess Hall) is very good, as are the special effects. But that doesn’t make up for the unconvincing story (even though it does have a nice twist which is why I don’t give it a much lower grade) and Depp’s wooden acting, although to cut Johnny some slack, the role is extraordinarily one-dimensional.