There’s an apt line that applies to Transcendence: bad, but not uninteresting. It marks the directorial debut of Christopher Nolan’s favorite cinematographer Wally Pfister, the man who brought Gotham City to life and put the surreal reality into the dreamscapes of Inception. He has the skills to create a good looking movie and the intelligence to tackle a worthwhile subject. But he still has a lot to learn about telling a story, a fact that Transcendence reveals to our eternal disappointment.
Its Frankenstein-style premise won’t win huge marks for originality, but still shows plenty of life, especially with some real thoughtfulness behind it. As we hurdle towards ever more astonishing advancements in artificial intelligence, what happens when our creations start outpacing our ability to keep up? That’s the dilemma posed by Dr. Will Caster (Johnny Depp), hard at work on a sentient machine until a gang of Luddite terrorists put an irradiated bullet in his gut. Rapidly fading and with the prospect of losing his life’s work, he and his colleagues hit upon the notion of uploading his consciousness into a set of computer banks. He reawakens as the ultimate fusion of human and computer. But is it really him in there? And even more troubling, what happens when he gets out?
Plenty of movies, both good and bad have tackled similar subject matter. Transcendence deserves credit for doing so in a serious manner, and for including a ridiculously talented roster of actors (including Paul Bettany, Rebecca Hall, Cillian Murphy and Morgan Freeman) to bring it to life. Add to that some gorgeous cinematography, and the technical merits of the film stretch beyond reproach. When combined with such an intriguing storyline, it should have been a can’t miss.
But Pfister can’t sustain enough dramatic tension to keep us occupied, and lacks the storytelling skills to thrill us the way he should. What begins as an intriguing variation of time-tested sci-fi concepts soon shambles its way into a total quagmire, as the questions posed by the first few scenes stumble around in search of interesting answers. None arrive. Instead Pfister’s lack of appreciative tone creates a tension-free shaggy dog, wandering from one vaguely connected scene to the next and bolstered by the empty promise of better things just around the corner. We’re three quarters of the way through before we realize that nothing of importance is coming.
Instead, we get a lot of keen visuals, a few vaguely apocalyptic warnings and a dire fate for the planet that never feels quite real. Transcendnece was smart to cast so many talented actors who can find the humanity of their characters without a lot of help. Unfortunately, the script leaves them with nowhere to go, and though they have the collective chops to hold our attention, they can’t take things any further on their own. Depp displays an emotional blandness intended to convey cool detachment, but which never extends past boredom, while Hall and Bettany flourish big emotional payoffs in scenes that never quite merit them. The longer the film goes, the worse things get, until an emotionally neutered finale arrives solely because Transcendence couldn’t think of a more appropriate place to stop.
Pfsiter has been a key part of some significant movies, and I have no doubt that he can mature into a fine director in his own right. But we already have far too many filmmakers focusing on pretty pictures at the expense of story, and Transcendence fails to overcome that all-important hurdle. Its glistening surface carries real substance beneath it, but without the spark to humanize it, nothing worthwhile emerges. Its protagonists seem to know all about that dilemma. Pity the movie they’re trapped in can’t do the same.