Starring: Johnny Depp (Edward Scissorhands), Rebecca Hall (Iron Man 3), Paul Bettany (Priest), Kate Mara (House of Cards), Morgan Freeman (The LEGO Movie), Cillian Murphy (28 Days Later)
Director: Wally Pfister
Writer: Jack Paglen
Runtime: 1 hour 59 minutes
Release Date: 18 April (US), 25 April (UK)
It’s always an odd prospect when someone in the film industry who is well known for, and often very talented at, a certain profession manages to bag a directing gig. Whilst more common with actors or writers, plenty of production designers, cinematographers, even visual effects supervisors, get a chance to direct. Sometimes it works beautifully and they go on to successful careers in that field, and other times their lack of experience or their incompatible sensibilities can create for an unusual piece of film. Considering Wally Pfister has been working as a director of photography under the great Christopher Nolan since Memento, you’d hope he would have picked up a few good tips and that his directorial debut Transcendence would fall into the former category. Quite sadly though, it’s in the latter.
A lot of the core ideas behind Transcendence are certainly an interesting foundation to build a story around. The film does certainly tackle the subject of technology and how advanced we should let it become with some intelligence at points, throwing in plenty of moral quandary for good measure. It is certainly evocative of the more contemplative science fiction works of the 1960s and 70s. Unfortunately, it’s lacking in almost every category. The pacing is slow and drawn out, which I think is intentional but it doesn’t work here; instead of building tension or suspense, it just induces boredom. The passage of time feels unclear: we know that the film supposedly takes place over several years, but if not for a few title cards telling us so it would seem like this all happened over the course of a month at most, and the fact it does take place over such a long period of time makes the characters seem that much more incompetent (seriously, it took the government TWO YEARS to go “Hey, should we check out this huge facility being built in the middle of nowhere by a supercomputer and his worker bees?”). But the main problem with Transcendence is that the science just keeps getting more and more ridiculous. I’m not a scientist and I don’t know much about how computers work, but there were plenty of moments in this movie where I thought “I don’t think computers can do that” and a bunch of others where I went “OK, even for a super-advanced computer, that’s just ridiculous”. When it reaches the point where basically anything is possible because ‘computers’, it’s kind of hard to accept this takes place in a reality similar to our own.
It’s great to see Johnny Depp not playing an eccentric loon with a silly hat and too much eye make-up. Pity his performance in Transcendence is the absolute opposite of that persona. Depp sounds monotone and uninterested throughout the movie, even before becoming a sentient computer. Rebecca Hall fares much better as his wife, clearly putting a lot of emotional investment into this, but it falls apart due to the flimsy writing. These two are supposed to love each other more than anyone, but we never really get to see any moments to prove this before the plot kicks in; show, don’t tell. I couldn’t get invested in their relationship because I never got an idea of what it was. This lack of character detail is something that pervades every single one of the main performances. Morgan Freeman and Cillian Murphy feel like their playing caricatures of themselves from a bunch of their other movies, with little to no defining character traits. Kate Mara often feels even more robotic than Depp, saying every line with uninvolved contempt. And Hollywood, please stop wasting Clifton Collins Jr. He’s a much better actor than you keep thinking he is. The only one who manages to feel genuine in this entire thing is Paul Bettany, but it’s not enough to save the picture.
Considering Pfister’s a cinematographer, it’s almost a given that Transcendence would look nice and it does. The colours have a stark sheen to them appropriate for a sci-fi, and there are some pretty looking shots of both technology and nature. The editing is fine, the visual effects are fine, the music is fine, everything is just…fine. Not much really to say about it.
Transcendence isn’t an utter disaster, but merely flat and uninteresting. It takes a solid premise for a sci-fi thriller and makes it as invigorating as a physics lecture, and one where the science doesn’t even add up. Wally Pfister fails to find a voice for himself, leaving everything from the acting to the storytelling feeling bland. I can’t blame him fully, as I feel the script is more responsible than anything else, but it doesn’t exactly reflect well on him. Perhaps this is a case where he should return to doing what he does best.
FINAL VERDICT: 4/10