REVIEW: TRANSCENDENCE / CERT: 12A / DIRECTOR: WALLY PFISTER / SCREENPLAY: JACK PAGLEN / STARRING: JOHNNY DEPP, REBECCA HALL, CILLIAN MURPHY, KATE MARA, PAUL BETTANY, MORGAN FREEMAN / RELEASE DATE : APRIL 25TH
Wally Pfister, Christopher Nolan’s cinematographer of choice, steps out from behind… well, whatever it is cinematographers use, to claim his first feature film credit as director. But Transcendence is a troubling and rather ponderous movie which perhaps owes a little too much to Nolan and fatally fails to allow Pfister to really make his mark as a smart and dynamic original filmmaker. Transcendence is packed with brave ideas and solid, if unremarkable, performances but Pfister lacks the subtlety and wit needed to bring the project alive and the movie ends up looking like the work of someone who saw Inception a couple of time but didn’t really get it.
But to be fair, as another summer of superheroes and monster movies looms large, Transcendence is, at least, something new, even if it trades in ideas and concepts which might seem old hat to the technologically savvy, dealing as it does with artificial intelligence, the internet, nanotechnology and pesky computer viruses. Johnny Depp, freed from the chains of Captain Jack Sparrow, plays AI expert Dr Will Caster, boss of a bunch of boffins striving to create a fully free-thinking sentient machine, an event which Will calls ‘transcendence’. Not everyone thinks this is a terribly good idea. Will is shot by anti-AI terrorists and whilst he appears to recover from his injuries the bullet he was shot with contained lethal radioactive material. Before he dies, Will, with the help of his wife Evelyn (Hall), uploads his consciousness into the computer allowing him to survive digitally. Despite the concerns of their chum Max (Bettany), Evelyn and Digi-Will proceed with their plans to connect Will to the Internet (God bless a decent broadband connection) and Will continues with his attempts to achieve ‘transendence’ when Evelyn sets up a massive solar-powered research facility in a run-down desert town. Will creates a new super-advanced form of nanotechnology which has the capacity to alter the very essence of human nature.
Big, if slightly derivative ideas abound but the problem is that Pfister doesn’t really know how to develop them in anything other than the most simplistic and ham-fisted manner. The film’s tone sharp-turns from wagging a disapproving finger at the remorseless, unchecked advance of modern super-technology to gasping in awe at the miracles of science and the short-sightedness of those who stand in the way of progress. As a love story it verges on the creepy as Digi-Will romances an increasingly spaced-out Evelyn and a last-act volte-face to turn it into an action movie (there’s been a lot of talking so far) just requires us to admire snazzy CGI and visual effects tricks Pfister was probably keeping up his sleeve as Nolan was putting the finishing touches to Inception.
Perhaps it’s inexperience that scuppers Transcendence; Pfister’s cause isn’t helped by first-time screenwriter Paglan’s messy script which lacks pace and focus as much as it lacks humour and character. There’s precious little light and shade in any of the characters or their dilemmas; the anti-AI terrorist group led by Kate Mara’s Bree are as blank-page dull as Hall, Bettany and even Depp, reduced to leering omnipotently out from a computer screen for the better part of the movie. But Pfister makes it all look slick, sleek and stylish and even if the film’s moral compass drifts alarmingly and the post-apocalyptic pay-off stretches credulity beyond breaking-point, Transcendence rarely looks less than the sum of its $100 million budget. And whilst Wally makes a decent pfist of it (come on, we were never going to be able to resist that one), Transcendence is just a bit too ambitious for its own good and a bit too scattershot and undisciplined to mark him down as one to watch.
EXPECTED RATING: 7 out of 10