Film Review: Transcendence

Posted on:

A Material World

Warning: This review discusses the film’s ending.

Leaving a career in porn and becoming one of Hollywood’s most respected cinematographers must have convinced Wally Pfister that he was capable of anything. Having photographed Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy he began to mull the possibilities. Perhaps, thought he, I can move beyond this life as a lighting cameraman and become a director. Pfister dreamt that one day he wouldn’t just shoot scenes, he’d decide which were shot and from what angle; he’d cease to become a mere part of the machine and would transcend to authorial or God-like status.

It’s alleged that Nolan read Jack Paglen’s Transcendence screenplay and thought Pfister, not he, would be perfect to take the reins. Now the finished film is in cinemas it’s clear that recommendation constitutes an act of malice, an attempt to strangle his DP’s directorial career at birth. Why did he do it? Why let his friend and colleague put their name on this senseless piece of technophobic whimsy? Perhaps he feared losing his right hand to the director’s chair. Only this explanation accounts for his encouragement.

You and I would have read the screenplay; climaxing with the dead mad scientist and his dead wife uploaded to nanobots, absorbed into a rain cloud, somehow navigating their way to the skies above the lovers’ former garden, giving life to a sunflower, then, inexplicably, rejoining in a globule of dew to spend the rest of their lives part puddle in a garden spade; then rushed to Pfister’s place, begging him not to do it. “Wally, the movie ends with the characters becoming a shovel full of fucking rain water!” Yet Wally’s friend egged him on.

There’s much to despise about Transcendence: the lachrymose, part-sedated turn from Johnny Depp who could easily pass for a computer-generated approximation of himself, the waste of talent across the board – the likes of Morgan Freeman, Cillian Murphy and Paul Bettany subdued in non-roles – the confused screenplay, scoring off a luddite’s Aunt Sally one moment, excited by technology the next. So many oddments, such imponderables, that charting a line from conception to green light seems impossible. How did a screenplay with clangers like “my God, he’s reordering his own code!” escape the slush pile? Did Nolan choose it for Pfister as his very own Springtime for Hitler?

Of course a movie can be ludicrous; that’s the nature of high concept; but then execution becomes everything. Two factors unplug Pfister’s debut from the curious part of our brains. The first is the absence of style; no, not an experiment in minimalism or sobriety, but a story from which drama’s abdicated. This lack’s felt in every scene. There are no dramatic beats, no spikes of interest, no tension, no energy, just one flat exchange following another – you can almost see each scene being ticked off. Did Pfister imagine that once these lifeless, inert vignettes were assembled, a movie would simply be, like recording each note of a symphony separately then splicing the performance together using software? His friend Christopher Nolan might have told him it were not so, but he couldn’t be reached when Wally phoned for advice.

The second factor is the script’s idiocy, a handicap that, when contrasted with the deathly serious tone that pervades throughout, shines through to an open mouthed audience. “We need to get off the grid,” says the uploaded Depp – a genius who’s forgotten he IS the grid.

But there’s no sense quibbling over lines like that in a movie where a group amusingly billed as “neo-luddites” fear Depp’s techno-revolution enough to sit on their hands for two years, despite knowing his precise location, allowing him to build the most sophisticated data centre the world’s ever seen. One can understand the government’s fear of digi-Johnny too, given that he operates in plain sight, with no security and nothing but a handful of software enhanced hicks to protect his compound. Was the scene in which Depp erected a mile high perimeter fence while weaponising the surrounding dust belt, cut out? Given what was left in, quite possibly.

Such madness is ultimately what kills Transcendence. We’re told that Depp’s mad scientist is a threat but Pfister does nothing to convince the audience this is true. It’s not enough for characters to fear him or government spooks to look concerned, when Depp’s malevolent activities amount to waxing lyrical about curing disease and ending deforestation while prying into his wife’s hormone levels. The film’s prologue laments the loss of the Internet, while casting Depp’s megalomanic ambitions as the inevitable consequence of a networked world: the technology perverted to its full potential. Yet if Pfister’s movie does want to us think that too much integration, too much hybridisation between man and machine, is dangerous, he may have succeeded. Watching this thriller convinces you that the threat of being bored to death by these philosophical quandaries is very real.

Wally, it’s time to cut Chris loose (and produce a list of investors).

Directed by: Wally Pfister

Country: US

Year: 2014

Running Time: 119 mins

Certificate: 12A for a tearful Rebecca Hall, killer rain and an artificial intelligence that needs glasses.

2 Responses

  1. Michaelson says:

    Or maybe– and this is, I realize, the most egregious form of sacrilege– the great god Nolan really wouldn’t know a good script if one swam up and bit him. His movies have relied on bombast and the force of his overcooked ego; they’re uniformly short on consistency, lucid direction, character development, and logic. So “Transcendence” is right up his tree. Not that there aren’t some lovely moments between Bettany, Hall, and Depp– but those are due to the talent of the actors, not to the director, script, or producer.

  2. tim earnshaw says:

    I’ll enjoy this review more than the movie – this is why you’re here, Ed.