Transcendence is the directorial debut of Wall Pfister, a great cinematographer who has worked with many great directors but who is probably best known for working with Christopher Nolan on every one of his films. He’s been nominated for Academy Awards four times: 2005, 2006, 2008, and a win in 2010 for Inception. I’m telling you all this because I think Wally Pfister is a great cinematographer who has done great work on great movies. The problem is that these facts don’t seem have translated into him being a great director.
As the film begins Johnny Depp’s Dr. Will Castor is the leading scientist researching and developing artificial intelligence. He, along with his wife Evelyn (Rebecca Hall) and friend Max (Paul Bettany) are working towards transcendence, the moment that an AI will overtake all hum as in terms of thinking power.
Kate Mara leads a group called Revolutionary Independence From Technology (R.I.F.T.) who are working to stop transcendence from happening at any cost including blowing up labs, poisoning researchers, and shooting Dr. Caster in the gut with a bullet made of a radioactive material which causes him to die of radiation poisoning.
Evelyn, desperate not to lose her husband, finds research that indicates a human mind could be uploaded to a computer and proceeds to attempt to do this with Will in a last-ditch effort to save him. Max assists her until the point where Computer-Will comes online when he realizes they’ve created a monster and she kicks him out for saying it out loud. She plugs Computer-Will into the internet and sooner than later they’re gentrifying a small desert town with a massive data centre for Computer-Will to live in and work from while Max is kidnapped by Rift and slapped around a bit for information.
All of this would be interesting if the film had anything interesting to say about what is going on but what little exploration of the ideas it presents is so shallow and simple that it’s actually just annoying. In addition the story has several large gaps in logic which distract from the things that are going on. Case in point: when Max is kidnapped by R.I.F.T. they hold him in a cage for two years and in that time no other character ever stops to ask “when was the last time you saw Max?”
Add to this that Evelyn doesn’t start to realize that Computer-Will might be up to no good until it’s way too late despite being witness to everything he’s done, the government (represented by Cillian Murphy and Morgan Freeman) not realizing or caring that there is an intelligent, self-aware supercomputer living in the country they are supposed to be protecting from cyber crime, and R.I.F.T. not having any real message beyond “technology is, like, bad you guys. We can’t let it do, like, too much and stuff.” which might be ok except the film takes their side but, again, doesn’t really offer any compelling argument as to why and then in the end tries to have it both ways.
Between those fundamental problems with the story and script and the editing that awkwardly cuts around and away from dialogue and an overlong boring middle act –actually the entire movie is kind of boring it’s just that the middle act is particularly so– Transcendence is a mess. Johnny Depp, Rebecca Hall, and Paul Bettany all do their best but at the end of the day they are all held back by the material. Hall, in particular, has the worst of it in my mind because she being the woman is saddled with the burden of playing the one who not only can’t move on from the loss of her partner but makes all the terrible decisions which set the plot in motion because, you know, women have the feelings which override everything. Ugh.
I hope Wally Pfister makes more movies because he is a great cinematographer. Unfortunately his first time out is a dud.