This review was originally written for Cherwell
‘Wally Pfister’s directorial debut is a subtly thought-provoking exploration of humanity that suffers from its own admirable ambition.’
As the child of a marriage between Wally Pfister, Christopher Nolan’s long-serving cinematographer, and a script deemed worthy enough to feature on the 2012 Black List, a catalogue of Hollywood’s most promising screenplays, Transcendence promises much. And despite a shockingly poor performance at the box-office, not to mention the wave of critical panning it has received, this visually stunning sci-fi almost-thriller, aided by convincing performances from Paul Bettany and Rebecca Hall, goes a significant way to fulfilling its potential.
The plot centres on Dr Will Caster (Johnny Depp), a respected neuroscientist working to create the world’s first sentient computer, one ‘capable of a full range of human emotion’. When Will is fatally shot in an act of terrorism orchestrated by RIFT, a neo-Luddite organisation spearheaded by the forgettable Kate Mara, the only way he can be saved is if his consciousness is uploaded to a bank of processors. Will’s wife Evelyn (Hall) persuades reluctant fellow scientist Max (Bettany) to help her do so and as this computerised version of Will gains power, it’s morality, motives and ambitions slowly become increasingly questionable.
That the screenplay was feted for its potential in 2012 is not surprising. The plot embraces similar themes to those of Spike Jonze’s fantastic, Oscar-nominated Her, although varies considerably in tone. The ethical dilemmas of pursuing artificial intelligence and of sustaining life synthetically, the ability of machines to sympathise and understand human emotion and, ultimately, the nature of humanity itself: all are explored subtly throughout, yet the film never slips into moralisation or self-indulgence and these thought-provoking questions are left refreshingly unanswered.
Both Hall and the eternally likeable Bettany are engagingly believable but the woeful miscasting of Depp blights an otherwise commendable ensemble. He is more fashionably-dishevelled barista than esteemed neuroscientist and his portrayal of a sinister computerised version of a tousle-haired genius stretches plausibility to its limits. Apparently Pfister said he ‘would kill to get Johnny Depp’; given this latest in an ever-lengthening line of disappointing performances, one imagines he deeply regrets this wish. Morgan Freeman and Cillian Murphy also star, turning in adept but unremarkable portrayals of yet another respected neuroscientist and an FBI Agent respectively.
Transcendence’s failings stem from its ambition, yet this is paradoxically commendable. Pfister has not attempted to create a typical sci-fi thriller; Transcendence aims higher. It forgoes the tedium of explosions and in-your-face danger, instead preferring to offer a more restrained, and altogether more powerful menace, together with the aforementioned thematic stimulations. Pleasingly, it never strays from its intentions, unhurriedly attempting to build tension throughout and intelligently attempting to light a slow-burning sense of dread in the viewer. A tendency to dawdle is the unfortunate chaperone of these high-minded intentions, and a distinct lack of spectacle is perhaps the reason behind its dismal box-office performance, but one feels inclined to forgive these shortcomings given such admirable aspirations.
As one would expect from the cinematographer responsible for Inception and The Dark Knight franchise, Transcendence is visually stunning. Pfister is not afraid of lingering, and like a cognoscente savouring a painting, the viewer delights in being immersed in such carefully constructed beauty, accompanied perfectly by Mychael Danna’s broodingly introspective score.
It is an immense shame that the nature of contemporary sci-fi blockbuster culture demands the pernicious and ubiquitous gratification of action to be commercially successful. One suspects that if Transcendence, a genuinely intelligent and commendably nonconformist film, had not been plagued with the expectations this label sadly commands, it would have received the recognition it rightfully deserves.