When Johnny Depp plays an ordinary person – the kind that works in an office and struggles to do up a neck tie – it’s a cause for celebration, if only because it’s become such a rarity. In the last few years, Depp’s medley of wacky panto types has begun to pale, partly because they haven’t been offset by any performances of actual flesh and blood. His preference for self-effacement through makeup and costume has begun to look less like humility and more like a fear of playing emotions; the kind that real people might actually have to endure.
So the directorial debut of Wally Pfister, cinematographer on Chris Nolan’s films since Memento and on the occasional non-Nolan project like Moneyball, comes at an interesting time in Depp’s career. His two most recent films, Dark Shadows and The Lone Ranger, fizzled, and now, in Pfister’s Transcendence, Depp finally gets to play it straight. He plays Dr. Will Caster, a brilliant scientist at the forefront of research into artificial intelligence. He’s married to the beautiful Rebecca Hall, another boffin. They’re on the verge of a breakthrough when Will is shot by terrorist activists who believe that AI will destroy the world. Will dies, but the assassination backfires when his devoted wife uploads his consciousness to the Cloud. This new Will quickly becomes omniscient, and predictably his utopianism begins to feel distinctly sinister.
The anxiety over AI is a central theme of science-fiction cinema, complicated here by an interesting dilemma: what if the self-aware machine was indistinguishable from the love of your life? As in Spike Jonze’s Her, though, which burrowed into some of the same anxieties, the central romance seems rather contrived; tacked on to serve a thematic point, and thoroughly unconvincing.
But Transcendence has a more transparently hot button, political bent to it than Her. The government, embodied here by Cillian Murphy, joins the good guys to fight Depp’s all-powerful super computer. They’re fighting the encroachment of computer surveillance, instead of being its main exponents. Science-fiction indeed.
Transcendence is in cinemas April 24