A topical sci-fi thriller starring Johnny Depp, Transcendence asks the undeniably intriguing question – is a machine capable of understanding human emotion? And if so, what are the implications for mankind? Depp's character, technological evangelist Will Caster, finds out when, having been shot with a radioactive bullet, he decides to have his consciousness uploaded into a computer by his wife Evelyn (Rebecca Hall) and close friend Max (Paul Bettany). Once uploaded however, Will soon becomes omnipotent and a threat to the whole world. Directed by Christopher Nolan's former cinematographer Wally Pfister, Transcendence has received surprisingly poor reviews and has tanked at the global box office. It's a shame given the film's undeniable strengths, not least of which is the hugely impressive score by Oscar-winning Life of Pi composer Mychael Danna. The Canadian, a frequent collaborator with cult filmmaker Atom Egoyan, is the ideal choice to score a film like this, given that his music often contains a burgeoning sense of wonder. In the case of Transcendence, Danna's music always seems to be on the verge of emerging into something ever more grand and expansive – a perfect fit for a film about a man who transcends his nominal boundaries to become something else entirely.
The score features a rich and compelling soundscape, a Danna hallmark familiar not only from Life of Pi but also acclaimed scores such as The Ice Storm, The Sweet Hereafter and Monsoon Wedding. Danna is also one of the most culturally sensitive film composers, highly skilled at incorporating Eastern instrumentation into a western symphonic context – and it's a device that he uses brilliantly, although sparingly, in Transcendence. Combine this with suitably ethereal electronics and a haunting choir and the score makes for one of the most intriguing listens of 2014. The opening track "Transcend" essentially acts as a statement of intent, announcing the score's nuanced blend of organic and synthetic elements. Perhaps inevitably, it calls to mind Vangelis' groundbreaking Blade Runner and Daft Punk's superb Tron Legacy, as well as bits of Jerry Goldsmith's Total Recall. But by the time one hears the tapping Gamelan (Indonesian percussion ensemble) subtly mixed in with the music, there's no denying it's a Danna score through and through.
The score is intelligently structured, taking the listener on a clear journey through three distinct acts. The first introduces the listener to the overall mood of the score and contains a great deal of appealing music, not least of which is the attractive piano theme for Depp and Hall's characters in "Will and Evelyn". The use of a piano to convey a sense of romantic intimacy is one of the most overworked film music clichés yet Danna is able to put a typically classy and compelling spin on the material. This theme weaves its way throughout the score in discreet fashion, juxtaposing the characters' doomed romance against the increasingly apocalyptic twists of the narrative. "Four, Maybe Five Weeks" uses the Gamelan to lend a suitably alien (at least to Western listeners) texture to the score, foreshadowing Will's move from human to automated.
"Building Will" and "Is Anyone There" are two of the score's standout pieces, building to near-rhapsodic combinations of electronics, gamelan, choir and strings. But then "Online Now" takes the music in a decidedly darker direction, ushering in the generally moodier mid-section of the score as the newly uploaded Will begins to crave more and more power. The synths take on a starker, harsher quality (somewhat akin to Hans Zimmer's more abrasive material), the percussion becomes notably more thunderous and Danna teases hints of impressive-sounding action ("Get Off The Grid"). Even tracks that one might expect to be uplifting ("Healing the Sick") are generally dark and low-key, as Evelyn begins to realise the threat that her newly formed cyber-husband poses.
That said, Danna's accomplished merging of the disparate musical elements means the score is never anything less than compelling. And by demanding more from the listener halfway through the album, Danna ensures that the payoff has all the more impact. After the score's percussion-laden action highlight in "When Did You Lose Faith?", everything reaches a stunning conclusion in the triptych of "I Can See Everything", "Always Was" and "Garden", Danna bringing everything to a cathartic, healing conclusion, each track building to a series of wonderful crescendos that are almost religioso in feeling. The latter track cleverly brings the score full circle to the electro/orchestral hybrid of the opening "Transcend", effectively bookending the listening experience.
Striking as Transcendence is, the score isn't one for those who have trouble appreciating subtle, enveloping soundtrack experiences. Instead, Danna's work is one that washes over the listener, rewarding repeat plays. It adds immeasurably to its respective film – in fact, the aural wash of the score helps atone for the frequently banal and ludicrous plotting, lending more mystery to the film's themes of sentient intelligence and humanity. That the score works just as well when separated from the film is another sure sign of Danna's achievement – the rich mixture of electronic and orchestral elements entices the listener to step into a world where man and machine criss-cross. Many film scores nowadays frequently use electronics as a crass alternative to a real orchestra but Danna's work here is a textbook example of how to combine the two disciplines. It's a shame that the film has largely been dismissed as the score stands a chance of being forgotten along with it. This would be a crying shame – in terms of subtlety, craft and intelligence, Transcendence is one of the finest scores of 2014 and deserves a much longer shelf-life than its respective film is likely to get.