CPH Post


Johnny shows depth, but it doesn't transcend

"Didn't you just die? How many of you are there?!" (Photo: Photo: www.kurzweilai.net)

June 19, 2014

by Mark Walker

Occasionally there comes a film that is so roundly slated that it’s difficult to pinpoint exactly why. Certainly hard sci-fi, or speculative science fiction such as this, is a genre that frequently fails to find its audience – at least immediately. 

It’s worth remembering that films we widely consider to be untouchable classics of the genre, such as Bladerunner or 2001: A Space Odyssey, were met with indifference and opened to pretty dismal box-office results. 

Certainly, Transcendence probably won’t ever be held in such stratospheric regard, but there’s more to this film than the numbers would have you believe.

Will (Depp) and Evelyn Caster (Hall) are partners in science and life. Evelyn, a bio-geneticist, and Will, a leading light in artificial intelligence, are joined by their close friend Max (Bettany), an expert in nano-technology, to speak at a convention dubbed ‘Evolve the Future’. 

Radioactive consequences
Will, the star-speaker, is harangued for autographs and heckled by an audience who accuse him of looking to create a sentient artificial intelligence whose unlimited reach and omnipotence will render it godlike. Unfazed by the accusation, Will reasons that all gods are human creations and that we’ve been empowering them since history began. 

While leaving the auditorium, Will is shot with a radiation-poisoned bullet. He survives the attack, but won’t live for more than a few weeks.

Sentient from the grave
Based on existing research done on simian brains and using their available technology, Max and Evelyn make a frantic attempt to ‘record’ Will’s mind before his death, making a digital copy that, despite attempts by a semi-militant guerrilla outfit, becomes sentient and replicates itself on global servers via the net. 

Max, frightened by his dead friend’s propensity for power and self-propagation, questions the ethics of what they’ve done and departs. Evelyn, however, only begins to doubt her husband’s identity, and motives after she’s aided him in the construction of a exponentially expanding empire.

You can’t shoot an idea
It’s easy to imagine that some might have been left cold – it’s perhaps too high-minded to please a mainstream audience, and yet obvious compromises have been made to render its more complex concepts digestible for wider audiences.

Symptomatic of these are attempts to shift the narrative into action territory – those scenes are less successful than the central drama.

At one point, a team of activists, ideologically opposed to Will’s work, lays siege to his desert stronghold. This feels outmoded and out of place – more reminiscent of the SyFy channel’s weaker programming.

Over-thinking it
The film’s strong suit is its breadth of ideas, but unfortunately, in order to accommodate them all into the running time, the plotting is, at times, noticeably reduced to bullet points.

I only wish über-critic Roger Ebert were still alive to pass judgment because, as was often the case with a sci-fi underdog like this, I suspect he would have seen past obvious flaws and championed its clunky but genuinely thoughtful speculation. 

Transcendence is a valid, if exaggerated examination of our current and future relationship to developing technology and its potential for both assisting and dominating the evolution of our species.


Dir: Wally Pfister; US sci-fi, 2014,119 mins;

Johnny Depp, Rebecca Hall, Morgan Freeman, Paul Bettany, Cillian Murphy

Premiered 19 June
Playing nationwide