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Transcendence

Year: 2014
Studio: Warner Bros
Director: Wally Pfister
Writer: Jack Paglen
Cast: Johnny Depp, rebecca Hall, Paul Bettany, Morgan Freeman, Cillian Murphy, Kate Mara, Clifton Collins Jr, Lukas Haas

All the headlines you saw about how Johnny Depp isn't a box office drawcard anymore drowned what was good about this movie out.

Yes, it had a wrong footed-ness - the usual Prometheus tale that's plagued Hollywood forever, about how scientists are monsters playing God who are going to create something that will kill or enslave us all.

But even that's a harsher criticism than is really fair. We demand one thing from our fiction, after all – dramatic conflict – and science going right with nobody getting hurt isn't very dramatic. Ironically that's one of the elements Transcendence is missing, replacing true drama for thrills that seem as dour as they are ham-fisted.

So the short version of this review is that it's Frankenstein for the digital age as scientists attempt to upload a human mind into a computer and it apparently gets drunk with the power of infinite knowledge.

Will Caster (Depp) is an AI researcher who, along with his coworker and wife Evelyn, is working with a huge data centre to try and make a human-like program real.

When Will is gunned down at a conference by a member of anti-technology group RIFT, he seems to recover until they discover the bullet was laced with radiation, giving him months to live.

The race is on to scan Will's mind and upload it to the system, theoretically transporting his consciousness intact even as his body dies. As he gets sicker, Evelyn and friend and colleague Max (Bettany) race to digitise him.

They do so in the nick of time as RIFT close in, and Will is off into the internet with the world's resources at his non-existent fingertips. From behind the scenes, he has Evelyn build a huge data centre in a desert township, starting research into everything from tissue regeneration to superhuman abilities.

The first two thirds of the film are actually very smart about stuff some Hollywood executive probably wanted dumbed down much more – from the theory of Ai to supercomputers. Most of it is visually realistic as well, which makes a change (a lesser director than Pfister would have made everything look like a spaceship).

But it loses its way in the last half somewhere. The idea that computer Will can manipulate matter and build an army of super-helpers out of the townspeople made sense according to the plot, but scenes of nanoparticles rising from the desert floor to flood the Earth in the rain and spontaneously rebuilding damaged solar panels all seemed to go too far off the original topic. There are a few too many common thriller tropes (bad guys turn out ot be the real good guys, etc).

But while Depp isn't trying too hard (nor does he, only appearing in about three scenes before he just sits there talking, his digital visage keeping his wife company on screens throughout the facility), I still think Hall's a star in the making. This film and Iron Man 3 are going to be stepping-stones to much bigger and better things for her.

Being a cinematographer, Pfister's visuals were always going to be beautiful. One wonders why he needed a cinematographer of his own (Jess Hall of Hot Fuzz), but some of the close up shots of water dripping off plants are showstoppers.

It's hard to say exactly why it fell short of my expectations. I don't consider it the creative flop everyone else seems to have. I was looking forward to it after being so interested in the area, and I probably expected a lot worse after seeing the way Hollywood usually treats science.

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