Johnny Depp’s performances are entering into their most interesting stage at the same time as they move into their least lucrative. He’s not the unreal beauty he used to be and the sadness of that manifests itself in box office returns. Perhaps the hurt of betrayal, too, with pundits now wise to all those years that Tim Burton’s markeup department spent hiding his diminishing cheekbones. There’s still an unreality there, yes, but it comes from the quixotism of his grace wielding a body that ages, just like ours do.
In 2009’s Public Enemies, Michael Mann’s clinical digital precision avoided soft filter for the lie that it is, and we all saw the texture of Depp’s skin for the first time – lack of warts and all. He’s the most beautiful there, because it’s clear that it’s a human being who looks this good. But digital photography has brought cinema to a tipping point at which it’s still wobbling, because its capacity for resolute clarity calls attention to how immortal, or its opposite, the perfection of its represented objects might be. You could see Depp worrying about how much longer he’d be able to carry on the con.
Until now, it seems. Transcendence is not only a science fiction film; it’s also an epitaph for Depp’s once ageless beauty. This marks the first time, for example, that we’ve needed to be shown him signing autographs. The film is fraught with a panic that the old certainties of stardom might not apply. He’s shot with a bullet filled with polonium and contracts radiation poisoning, but this is only the beginning. Later, in the privacy of his own home, Depp looks in the mirror and he looks worse than ever. Naturally, they gloss over this section of the movie: ten minutes later and his consciousness has been uploaded into a computer in what seems to be a necessary expedient. Rebecca Hall gazes desperately at a blemish-free Depp avatar that looks about to take over the world, as if she’s decided to go back and watch Pirates of the Caribbean on Netflix instead. His subsequent avatar is creepy in its perfection, and it’s not only the blips of sporadic code that interrupt its transmission that cause us to pause. As the years go by, characters start to question the image’s motives and we realise that we were always so busy admiring the perfection up there on the screen that we never stopped to consider the extent to which the intelligence behind it was human. More fool us.
This is at the opposite end of the blockbuster spectrum to The Lone Ranger (which was a very good film, much better than this one), and Depp must be frustrated by the exclusivity of that middle space to superheroes. It was donkey’s years ago that audiences turned against the wide-open spaces of the western yet they don’t want to be reminded that they’re slaves to their smartphones now, either. Nevertheless, this is an intelligent science fiction tale with a matter-of-factness as it unpacks ideas. This is refreshingly at odds with the sledgehammer polemics that characterise the directorial work of its producer and patron Christopher Nolan, which are only really intent on bludgeoning us with how intelligently they’re being wielded. Here the ideas are intelligent enough not to tell us that they are. The exposition is frank but almost ashamed, the mechanics of plot spoken so quickly you might miss them – aside from the ending, where you really get the impression that Nolan was breathing down Pfister’s neck. I was also disappointed by a moment when a character who has purportedly transcended the limitations of human being-ness leaps five rungs up a ladder when he surely would have been able to surmount all ten. It reminded me of a moment in a dreamworld-set shootout in Inception when Tom Hardy tells Joseph Gordon Levitt to ‘dream bigger’ and pulls out a marginally bigger gun as a demonstration.
Like Noah, (and The Lone Ranger, for that matter) this is another recent movie that tells us we’re fucking up the planet, but it seems to be OK when that message comes down from High. When it derives from a person, even the narrative is quick to include the caveat that they might be playing God. But the ending of the film – and I guess that this constitutes a spoiler (even though nothing spoils a movie quicker than premature underestimation) – is remarkable in that it turns this assumption on its head. In its rejoinder that there are better things for heaven and earth than us, the film criticises us for our rashness and lack of imagination. At one moment Morgan Freeman (Or was it Paul Bettany? Everyone aside from Depp and Hall are underwritten to the point of interchangeability) assumes that Depp’s digital revenant is all intelligence and no soul. In this assertion that a computer could understand love and yet simultaneously comprehend a hatred for deeds committed by the object of that love, intelligence is presented as exclusive from emotion. In the film’s eventual overcoming of this bifurcation I was reminded of a line in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s short story The Crack Up: ‘The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function.’
Transcendence functions, just about, and despite what critical consensus might have led you to believe the director hasn’t made a pfist of it. There are issues – the action’s messily staged and the pacing is slipshod, but this is a gorgeous film to look at in brilliantly crisp 4K, and digital effects enable a digital camera to travel at the speed of light through fibre optic cables and to differentiate between individual particles in a droplet of water. I wonder, then, whether things like spatial geography or narrative coherence even matter any more, or are they merely sentimental relics left over from a time when a star could sell a movie?