Genre: Drama, Mystery, Sci-Fi
Directed by: Wally Pfister
Starring: Johnny Depp, Rebecca Hall, Morgan Freeman, Cillian Murphy
What price progress? It’s this question that Transcendence spars with, managing to land a couple of glancing blows before succumbing to its own weaknesses. Tackling that perennial favourite, the perils and benefits of technology, Christopher Nolan’s long-time cinematographer Wally Pfister’s debut feature contains interesting insights that are buried beneath a waste of talent.
Things aren’t going to end well, that much is clear from Paul Bettany’s opening monologue in a damaged world where people prop open doors with disused keyboards (though with touchscreens that future is arguably almost here). Taking us back to before it all went wrong; Bettany’s Max introduces Will and Evelyn Caster (Johnny Depp and Rebecca Hall). Will is the real genius ably supported by a team that includes his wife and Max. He’s on the verge of creating a sentient computer but is struggling to make it truly self-aware.
The push comes from a generic Luddite terrorist group, the usual collection of grimly earnest revolutionaries. A successful attempt on his life finds Will uploaded into his computer before it’s too late. With vastly increased power and the ability to do unfathomable things with technology no one really understands, he starts to expand, building a little army of hive minds along the way as others race to stop him and Evelyn vacillates between supporting what may or may not be her husband.
Technology run amok is hardly a new idea. It’s been a favourite topic for a long time. For large parts, Jack Paglen’s screenplay does little to distinguish itself from the mass of bland literature already out there. A little bit of mystery is thrown into the mix – is it really Will in the machine or is it a machine pretending to be Will – but there are only so many creepy romantic dinners Evelyn and her computer screen can go through before it begins to wear thin.
And yet at the end, after a series of poorly handled plot developments almost derail it, Transcendence proves to have something to say after all. There’s more nuance than the earlier bombastic speeches on the benefits/terrible things this technology will bring suggest. The final third eventually opens up a debate on what it means to be human and the extent to which we can keep moving forward before we go too far.
It’s a shame that it takes so long to reach this point. Instead, Pfister drags his debut through a set of plot turns that might have fallen straight out of a 1960s pulp sci-fi novel languishing in the recesses of a second hand bookshop. When the final master plan involves a magical computer virus, it’s clear the ground beneath Transcendence is shaky.
There’s also a tragic waste of the most interesting character, Paul Bettany’s Max. In the first third he’s a pioneering scientist who still queries the moral path their work is taking them down. He’s quick to step up to try and stop Evelyn, blinded by love, from unleashing Will on the world even as he helps her construct the machinery to do so. After being kidnapped by Bree (Kate Mara), leader of the terrorist group R.I.F.T. (Revolutionary Independence From Technology of course because it has to have a zippy sci-fi acronym), he then emerges in the final third as a born again revolutionary. What’s lacking is the process of conversion in the middle, the space where the two sides of the debate meet to fight it out.
Wasting Max is not the only mistake in the middle section. Pfister struggles throughout to inject energy into the film but the second act is particularly flat. There are also far too many cuts to close-ups of random objects, a laboured set up involving drops of water and an overuse of slow motion. It looks pretty, as it was always going to given his abilities as a cinematographer, but there’s more to directing than putting on an attractive slide show.
With a wonderful cast, a highly sought after script and one of the most talented cinematographers in the business stepping up a level, Transcendence came with high levels of expectation. Poor storytelling and flat direction quickly puncture this before a thoughtful conclusion goes a little way towards reflating it, leaving a whirring series of ideas to ponder come the end of the credits. Ultimately though, if Christopher Nolan is the chosen one leading us to the Promised Land where big budget blockbusters and intelligent stories combine, his disciples still have a way to go yet.