Wally Pfister’s techno-savvy directorial debut Transcendence (2014) is not quite the well-oiled machine it professes to be. The lavish, glossy exterior evokes Pfister’s prior cinematography for Inception (2010), but there is little substance below its slick surface. Although precise and well honed, Pfister’s direction sacrifices emotion for neatness and struggles to capture the inner strife of its characters. As a result, Transcendence offers a hollow riff on the human-versus-technology quandary that not only simplifies the culture of our time but also ignores the rallying zeitgeist that favours the techno-renaissance of the 21st Century.
Scientist Will Caster (Johnny Depp) becomes the ghost in the machine and a shell of his former human self, creating a godly and omniscient computer that transcends the capability of a human. To combat the anxieties of technology, a neo-Luddite group of technophobes dubbed R.I.F.T. (Revolutionary Independence From Technology) rises against the machine. Meanwhile, Caster's wife Evelyn Caster (Rebecca Hall) is forced to extreme lengths in pursuit of his protection.
Sober and stripped of his raggedy pirate garments from the exhaustive Pirates of the Caribbean franchise (2003-), and with a faint British accent in his croaking voice, Depp portrays the genius scientist. The function of Depp’s groomed character is somewhat hazy, his transition from brilliant mastermind to virtual tin man rarely distorts Depp’s kempt and recognisable look. Indeed the film credits a sprawling list of popular and well-received names attached to the debut project, but Depp’s immaculate image drives the star vehicle towards a mass audience.
Pfister's direction is precise and restricting, often sacrificing authenticity in order to maintain narrative progression. It is predictable, if not linear. However there is more gravitas on a conceptual level. Its cold and mechanical design is riddled with a similar paranoia that courses through James Cameron’s 1991 blockbuster Terminator 2: Judgement Day. Both emphasise the frailty of life but while Cameron’s apocalypse evokes historical anxieties through the silent ticking of the doomsday clock, Pfister’s film looks to the future.
The virtual Caster is reminiscent of Hal 9000 in Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968); the red lens with calm voice instils the same threat against privacy and loss of individuality as Depp’s pixelated persona. Caster’s godly and unnerving power also recalls the monoliths in Kubrick’s epic, underpinned by a concern for the future and a fondness for nature that conjures up the green slopes and Icelandic ranges of Ridley Scott’s Prometheus (2012). Both draw a correlation between humanity and nature, as much as 2001: A Space Odyssey’s opening ape sequence establishes the origins of mankind before charting its evolution. Strangely, Transcendence’s technophobia seems out-dated when considered alongside a generation accustomed to being plugged-in.
An interface of shapes and jutting lines, the virtual Depp is now more metaphorical than man. His unmatched supremacy situates him as the ultimate authority. Rendered into a digitised version of himself, Depp remains coldly indifferent throughout. The direction does not allow for emotion and neither does Depp’s performance of the human Caster. Depp’s physical absence manifests itself in the echo of Caster’s running dialogue at a conference to promote the process of “Transcendence”; the virtual presence reinforces Depp's immortality as a star icon. Will Caster displays only a grain of emotion for his wife, and supposed loving partner. And yet there is a genuinely shocking moment that unravels the Depp image and is perhaps the film’s most moving scene: bald and with mechanical clamps attached to his sickly pale head with a series of cables running into the unseen, Depp stares unnervingly at the camera. With half his face consumed by shadows, Depp’s tortured Caster is oddly human and vulnerable for the first time in a film that is otherwise coldly disconnected.
Transcendence flaunts all the flare of a Christopher Nolan film but is oversimplified; the dazzling visuals are but a cog in Pfister’s empty machine. Pfister’s tone seems to connect with a different time; where the rest of 21st Century embraces technology, Transcendence fears it.