film: transcendence

USA, 2014
Director: Wally Pfister
Writer: Jack Paglen
Starring: Johnny Depp, Rebecca Hall, Morgan Freeman, Paul Bettany, Kate Mara, Clifton Collins Jr, Cillian Murphy
119 mins
weirtopia grade: **1/2

Transcendence comes with great promise and aspirations. It’s the first directorial project from respected cinematographer and long-time Christopher Nolan collaborator Wally Pfister. Now he takes the leading reins and hopes to make an impact akin to Nolan’s mind-benders, a la Memento or Inception.

Telling the story of Will Caster (Depp), a leading figure in A.I. research and a proponent of ideas not unlike Ray Kurzweil’s hypotheses of the Singularity, Transcendence lines itself up somewhere between The Matrix and Charlie Brooker’s Black Mirror episode “Be Right Back”. Caster is mortally wounded by an anti-technology organisation intent on stopping him from creating the ultimate artificial intelligence; an autonomous, sentient machine able to surpass all of humanity’s intelligence.

At the last moment before Will’s imminent death, he, his wife Evelyn (Hall) and collaborator Max (Bettany) manage to upload his consciousness into a stripped-down version of Will’s computer, sending Evelyn on the run from their enemies, Max in captivity and Will’s disembodied consciousness planning his own way to “make the world better”, it all heads toward an exciting techno-thriller build-up and climax.

However, somewhere along its dusty desert road, where “Will” and Evelyn build new headquarters off the grid, it loses all of its momentum, excitement and worse still, its sense of invention.

Pfister obviously intends Transcendence to be a smart story, emphasising characters above car chases, a patient construction of a dramatic world above a succession of set pieces, and a sense of wonder above a sensory overload. Unfortunately, the crippling loss of momentum as the story grinds to a halt at the start of the second act ruins most of those intentions for Pfister and co.

Instead of intrigue, the stuttering and only intermittent developments in the story struggle to maintain interest through to the final showdown. There is almost no tension in a story that should realistically be fraught with it, and the climax is decidedly anticlimactic.

What Transcendence does do well, though, is deal with themes of disconnect and self-identity. It asks of the viewer: what makes us human? How do we know we’re sentient. And for parts of it, you genuinely think and wonder about these things. However, the film’s philosophical edge is corroded through somewhat generic AI motifs and an under-used subplot involving human enhancement, which still provides the film’s most genuine thrills, which are few and far between. True to Pfister’s roots, the film’s best feature is a visual one. Throughout, there is a repeated water-drop motif that turns out to be a lot more than just slo-mo cinematography porn.

It is good to see Johnny Depp drop the panto act for the first time in way too long. The poor guy has been stuck in ridiculous, self-effacing, almost self-parodying roles since Jack Sparrow blew up 11 years ago. His Will is refreshingly understated, and his expressionless thinker makes for a suitably ambiguous AI Will. You don’t really know where you have him, although the moodiness veers too close to the edge of boredom at times.

Unfortunately, Rebecca Hall doesn’t follow suit, as her Evelyn is inconsistent, and not in the way a character with torn loyalties is inconsistent, but the way an actress who doesn’t know her character is inconsistent. It leads to an unintentional disconnect between Hall and Depp on top of the intentional disconnect between Will and Evelyn, which doesn’t exactly help proceedings once the pace slows down.

Morgan Freeman could play his character in his sleep, and for a part of the film at least, he seems to do so. Cillian Murphy is an extremely talented, energetic performer, but doesn’t get a whole lot to do, while Bettany and Kate Mara, who find themselves in the opposition to Will’s efforts, turn out to be the most interesting people in the story.

Wally Pfister is one of the best cinematographers in the world. That’s indisputable. But he still has a ways to go before he can wrangle the same brilliance out of living actors as he has out of a camera for the last 15 years.

Transcendence wants to be this year’s Matrix or Inception, but due to a plodding storyline, half-developed philosophical ideas and a distinct lack of pace, it largely fails, despite a few good visual elements and a refreshingly straight performance from Johnny Depp.

2.5/5 stars

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