On a movie set, the cinematographer is never far from the director’s right hand. A strong director/cinematographer partnership is essential for a smooth and effective production, with every necessary shot captured in just the right way. Naturally, this means that many directors have very long histories with their DOPs. They work together on so many projects that they develop a kind of shorthand, using previous methods as a reference for what they need in the moment.
Some directors and cinematographers have become so inseparable that the touch of one becomes an indelible part of the other’s method. Recent examples include Zack Snyder with Larry Fong, Guillermo del Toro with Guillermo Navarro, and Christopher Nolan with Wally Pfister.
Pfister has worked on every single one of Nolan’s movies since Memento, which of course makes him a huge part of Nolan’s trademark visual style. For all of Nolan’s incredible talents, Pfister deserves so much credit for making the Dark Knight films work so well, and he more than earned his Oscar for Inception. So when Pfister decided to try his hand at directing, of course Nolan came on board to exec-produce (alongside his wife and business partner, Emma Thomas, though their Syncopy shingle is noticeably missing from the opening credits).
The script Pfister chose was written by Jack Paglen, here making his debut. Pfister’s own cinematographer, Jess Hall, was previously responsible for lensing The Spectacular Now and Hot Fuzz. And of course, the Nolan/Pfister partnership had enough clout to pull together a fantastic cast of actors, including Johnny Depp, Rebecca Hall, Morgan Freeman, Paul Bettany, Cillian Murphy, and Kate Mara.
So where did Transcendence go wrong, then?
Right from the very first scene, I smelled trouble. Paul Bettany’s character walks through a post-apocalyptic wasteland in which all modern technology has been reduced to inert junk, lamenting in voice-over about how Will and Evelyn Caster (Johnny Depp and Rebecca Hall, repectively) led to all this. The rest of the story is told to us in flashback. I have mixed feelings about this opening.
First of all, opening the film with a long and preachy voice-over is not getting off on the right foot. Secondly, part of the reason why I wanted to see this movie is because I wanted to see what the film did with its premise — a dying genius gets his brain transplanted into a supercomputer he built, with catastrophic results. Laying the results out in the open like that was kind of anticlimactic for me. On the other hand, knowing that this is how it ends gave a certain air of inevitable doom to the proceedings. Though that works against the film as well.
See, there’s this concept called an “idiot plot,” in which the plot can only work if all the characters involved are idiots. Transcendence is something different: Its plot can only work if the cast is smart enough to work scientific miracles yet dumb enough not to realize the potential consequences ahead of time. It’s significantly more maddening. I spent the whole running time asking how such geniuses could be so incredibly stupid. What’s worse, just in case someone in the audience didn’t have enough brain cells to go “uh oh” before the characters do, we’re explicitly shown at the outset what’s going to happen. This means that we spend the entire running time watching the characters come to realize things that we already know. As such, any attempt at suspense or intelligent storytelling is DOA.
It really sucks that the story is so dumb, because it’s obvious that the filmmakers wanted to ask some very deep questions. They present some fascinating ideas about the potential benefits of technology, as well as some plausibly sinister drawbacks. Granted, a lot of this depends on technology that’s decades, maybe lifetimes ahead of what we can do now. There are times when the film uses nanotechnology in ways that border on magic, using it as a catch-all middle step between artificial intelligence and healing mortal wounds, saving the environment, etc. But I can let that slide here. It’s done for the purpose of considering the possible ramifications of tomorrow’s technology, and that’s what science fiction is all about. Which brings me to my next point.
No matter how paranoid we may be about science, common sense dictates that at least a few of today’s computer engineers have seen The Terminator or read William Gibson. The idea that we’re blindly charging toward the Technological Singularity without caution or forewarning is utterly ridiculous. It goes back to my earlier point: Someone dumb enough to make an intelligent machine without some kind of failsafe in place would be someone too dumb to build an intelligent machine to begin with.
Of course, the film tries to cover its tracks, saying that Evelyn is so blinded by grief that she can’t just trash her husband’s ghost. That dog won’t hunt. This film has a nasty habit of using its romance aspect as a way of glossing over its plot holes. This is especially obvious in the film’s final scene, which seals the Will/Evelyn relationship with a saccharine heap of useless bullshit that contradicts everything the film’s climax was built on. Furthermore, it’s hard for me to get invested in a relationship between a renegade computer and the fool who let it go and take over the world. In fact, that makes the film oddly self-defeating; the film argues that it’s our mental/emotional contradictions that separate us from machines, specifically using Evelyn as a case in point. And considering what her internal conflict allows to happen, that’s not exactly a ringing endorsement for Homo sapiens.
But the stupidity goes way deeper than the Casters and their colleagues — the whole damn world seems to have gone insane. The Caster-Bot plays the stock market to make billions of dollars overnight, and where’s the SEC? It makes nanomachines that heal any injury and cure any sickness, and where’s the FDA? It hijacks every surveillance camera in the country to go after an anti-technology terrorist group (called “RIFT”), and no one in the US government or military-industrial complex raises an eyebrow. The computer and its bride spend a fortune to purchase and renovate an entire town — albeit a podunk little town in the middle of nowhere — and not a single government bureaucrat thinks to intervene? Seriously? A computer is taking over the whole fucking world, and the only people who think to ask any questions about it (before the hour mark, anyway, when things have already spiraled out of control) are the mass-murdering terrorists!
By now, it should be obvious that the characters are a joke. At least Kate Mara makes for a very charismatic one-note character, and Paul Bettany is doing his damnedest as the hopelessly ineffectual voice of reason. Cillian Murphy and Morgan Freeman play characters completely undeserving of such talent, and they sleepwalk through the roles accordingly. Johnny Depp? Eh. Depp gives his typical quirky performance before Caster gets uploaded, and Caster-bot is naturally so stiff that Depp is wasted in the role. That only leaves Rebecca Hall, struggling so desperately to make this character sympathetic no matter how many times she allows her decoy husband to wreak havoc.
As for Wally Pfister, I’m very sad to report that he shows very little knowledge of how to pace a narrative. Though Pfister’s keen visual eye is in full effect, the picture includes so many shots that feel like they’ve been spliced in at random. Most of them are some form of foreshadowing, in retrospect, but they’re somehow presented without any feeling of momentum. Of course, the score doesn’t help — Mychael Danna turns in a mishmash of a score that fails to sell any kind of suspense or drama. It baffles me how Pfister could have worked so closely with Christopher Nolan for so many years without learning a few things about how to present a film with energy and tension.
That’s ultimately what it all comes down to: This film is boring. For all of its heady themes about artificial intelligence, the film only presents the most superficial ideas by way of a cardboard plot held together with Scotch tape. The plot consistently beats IQ points out of its characters until the dumbest, laziest, most predictable route can make sense. But, again, maybe the plot wouldn’t be so predictable if we weren’t explicitly told the ending ahead of time.
I really want to like Transcendence. Honestly, I do. The filmmakers went after some very interesting themes with a tremendous amount of ambition, and I respect that. Unfortunately, this concept demanded a level of intelligence and depth that these filmmakers were not equipped to bring. In the hands of more experienced auteurs, this might have been something very special. But for a debut writer and a first-time director? They hooked a fish way too big to reel in.
The film is a beautiful pile-up of wasted talent and stillborn potential. It’s not exactly Prometheus — that film was aggressively confusing while this one is merely boring — but they’re in the same class. This one’s a rental at best.