‘Transcendence’ serves as the directorial debut for Wally Pfister, but while this may only be his first foray into directing, Pfister has already made a name for himself as one of the best cinematographers in the business. In the past decade, his cinematography work has been nominated for four Oscars and he finally won the Oscar for Best Cinematography in 2010 for his work on ‘Inception’. While he has worked on a few other films in his career, including ‘The Italian Job’ and ‘Moneyball’, he has mainly been known as director Christopher Nolan’s go-to cinematographer, having done all of his films since ‘Memento’ (excluding the upcoming ‘Interstellar’ due to his work for this project). Nolan himself serves as a producer for the film so it’s safe to say that there’s a lot riding on this one. Pfister has long-worked with one of the best directors in Hollywood so perhaps with this, he could successfully move into directing and become the next Nolan. After all, this film’s premise seems very much in line with what you might expect from a Nolan film. Unfortunately though, this ends up being one of the most disappointing films of the year.
Artificial Intelligence researcher Will Caster (Johnny Depp) has been striving to develop a machine that can achieve technological singularity, in which A.I. would progress to the point where it becomes smarter than any human on the planet, resulting in radical civilization changes. While Will is hard at work at accomplishing this goal with the help of his wife Evelyn (Rebecca Hall) and their friend Max (Paul Bettany), an extremist group known as R.I.F.T. (Revolutionary Independence From Technology) launches a series of attacks on numerous A.I. facilities. Will himself gets shot by one of its members and while he does survive the shooting, he and Evelyn learn that he attracted radiation poison as a result of it and will eventually die in a few weeks. Looking to save him, Evelyn decides to upload Will’s consciousness to a computer and with Max’s help, they are successful, allowing Will’s spirit to live on so that he can continue his work. However, soon Will starts to gain a bit too much power, and Evelyn is soon forced to consider whether or not to shut him down before he becomes way too powerful.
Going in, the biggest problem regarding whether or not this movie would turn out any good probably had to have been whether or not the science behind it was really smart or really dumb (or in the case of the former, potentially even a bit ‘too smart’). But in the end, that’s not this movie’s biggest problem. Its biggest flaw is that it is really, really boring. This is one of those films where nothing really happens and yet strangely enough things do happen in regards to the plot. This film does have an intriguing premise and does raise some interesting questions about whether or not technology should advance to the point where it becomes superior to us and potentially could even become a major threat to us. The story they present here is a good case of that. It’s just that as a movie, ‘Transcendence’ runs at a very slow pace. As for the actual science within the film itself, I can’t really say whether or not it’s handled well because I can admit that I’m not that big of a computer expert. But for the record, I just want to recount something that happened after I saw this film in the theater. Some guy seated a few rows in front of me apparently began to rant about the film once it was over. So with that in mind, I’m guessing that at the end of the day, this premise wasn’t really handled that well.
But there are good things in this film. One good aspect in particular is the cinematography. While Pfister isn’t the cinematographer here (that duty instead belongs to Jess Hall), this film really has some gorgeous visuals so it’s clear that Pfister is an expert when it comes to getting some excellent shots, even when he isn’t directly behind the camera. Also, this movie does have a good cast; however, the characters themselves are rather bland. In some cases, some members of the cast are woefully underused; particularly Nolan regulars Morgan Freeman and Cillian Murphy who really don’t get anything to do here other than relaying exposition. Of this cast, two performances stand out. The first is Johnny Depp, who gives one of the more subdued performances of his career and that’s a nice refreshing change from what we usually see from him these days. Also, that’s saying a lot considering that for most of the movie he’s just on a computer monitor. The other standout is Paul Bettany because while, like I said, most of the characters are rather flat his character Max has the most depth out of any character in this film. One could argue that perhaps he should have been the main character. He isn’t, but for what it’s worth, he does a very good job here.
I really hate to say it, but ‘Transcendence’ ended up being really disappointing and that is really sad considering who is involved here. Wally Pfister is a great cinematographer and I do think that he has potential to be a great director. However, he probably should have gone with a different ‘first film’ as ‘Transcendence’ is, ultimately, not that good. Despite a very intriguing premise, the film itself is very boring and that’s kind of ironic considering that things technically do ‘happen’ within the film. The big problem here is that there are a lot of moments when the film begins to drag, and the characters are also pretty flat as well so we are not really emotionally attached to any of them. The cast does a good job, especially Johnny Depp and Paul Bettany, but in the long run they can’t save this train-wreck of a film and from what I hear, the original script by Jack Paglen was much better than what ultimately became of it on screen. What happened to that script? Well, we might never know.