As our technology becomes more and more complicated, so to does our relationship with it. We’ve long suspected that a point would come where it would finally surpass us in terms of intelligence and sentient thought, but as yet, we still seem to have the upper hand. That crossover point has become a staple of science fiction storytelling, especially in cinema, including such classics as ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’ (1968) and ‘The Matrix’ (1999). There’s no doubt that such films were very much in mind when ‘Transcendence’, the latest entry into the genre, was conceived. The directorial debut of Oscar-winning cinematographer Wally Pfister, it’s a big film that tackles some big ideas. But does the ambition of the film, in the end, actually get the better of it?
Will Caster (Johnny Depp) is a brilliant mind engaged in creating an artificial intelligence capable of thinking for itself, along with the assistance and support of his wife Evelyn (Rebecca Hall). It all seems to come to a crashing end when Will is attacked by a terrorist group trying to counteract the march of technology, but before he dies, Evelyn and friend Max Waters (Paul Bettany) upload Will’s consciousness into a computer in an attempt to preserve what he was. However, how successful they are, they can’t be sure. Is the voice talking back to them on the screen still Will, or is it a computer with higher and deadlier ambitions?
Pfister established himself as one of the most talented cinematographers in the world with his collaborations with director Christopher Nolan, including The Dark Knight Trilogy and ‘Inception’ (2010), for which he won an Oscar. There was a lot of buzz around whether his talents would translate into the director's chair, making ‘Transcendence’ an intriguing project. Unfortunately, this doesn’t seem to be the case. ‘Transcendence’ turns out to be a rather dull and uninspired affair, leaving very little impression at all. It looks visually impressive, with some great cinematography from Jess Hall, but the film establishes no solid rhythm from the beginning, and takes far more time than it should. There was never any doubt that Pfister would turn in a handsome-looking film, but his abilities as a visual storyteller aren’t developed enough to deliver a satisfying result, and the visuals aren’t enough to hold your interest.
Not all blame can fall on Pfister though. Jack Paglen’s screenplay is full of problems, from sketchy characters to a confused climax devoid of impact. So much emphasis is given to clear exposition and scientific justification for what we’re seeing, that emotion and logic seem to have been totally forgotten. It’s hard to sympathise with the characters (as hard as the actors are trying) without any chance to get to know them, so when the film attempts to hit emotional beats, they fall with a thud. The leaps in logic are also troubling, especially with the scale of AI Will’s plan and how, for a long time, the wider world never seems to question it or show any curiosity. There are some plot holes that can be forgiven in great films (‘Inception’ certainly has a few), but when they’re as considerable as in ‘Transcendence’, they’re pretty hard to ignore. That’s not to say the content isn’t interesting; there are a few nice touches and changes to the genre, but it moves with no sense of immediacy or tension, and achieves the bizarre result of feeling and taking far too long while at the same time not giving us the chance to get to know any of the people we’re supposed to be invested in. Perhaps Pfister can be forgiven for his lack of directorial skill here. He might have done a bit better with stronger material.
‘Transcendence’ turns out to be a rather dull and uninspired affair, leaving very little impression at all.
The weaknesses in the screenplay and direction haven’t done the cast any favours either. I’ll admit I was pretty pumped to see Johnny Depp free from bizarre make-up and (hopefully) showing some of that acting ability we haven’t seen in a while. Unfortunately, he isn’t given much material or even screen time to do that, instead being quickly confined to a computer screen. The rest of the cast, with impressive names such as Bettany, Morgan Freeman, Cilliam Murphy and Kate Mara, don’t fare much better, with such sketchy material to work with. Rebecca Hall makes the best crack at it and comes out as the most endearing character, as well as the easiest to connect with. Her and Depp show flashes of chemistry, but they spend so little time of screen together as a happy couple, that their relationship when Will is uploaded is more difficult to sympathise with.
I would like to say that ‘Transcendence’ has enough promise and cleverness to at least be an entertaining watch, but there’s little to support that. What we have is a weak imitation of better films and better ideas missing the necessary drive and heart. Whether Pfister has a future as a director is hard to say, as it’s difficult to work out whether more fault lies in the screenplay or the execution. With 2014 shaping up to be a year where the blockbuster might finally show the brains it was so sorely lacking last year, ‘Transcendence’ is little more than an early blemish, and even worse, one relatively easy to forget.