Transcendence – Review


Following his stellar visual work on the bulk of Christopher Nolan’s rather revered back-catalogue, cinematographer Wally Pfister makes his directorial debut with this high-concept science fiction drama. Having traded seats with Nolan – Nolan and producing partner/wife Emma Thomas take producer roles instead – Pfister’s first feature sees dying scientist Will Castor (played with initial gusto by Johnny Depp) uploaded into a supercomputer, where his thirst for human advancement soon leads to some questionable choices for humanity. But is it really Will calling the shots, or have his colleagues unwittingly created something horrific?


It’s a bold concept, one very suited to the era of current technology and asking deeply philosophical questions that will genuinely get your mind wondering; that said, Jack Paglen’s screenplay for Transcendence – his writing debut – is so busy asking you to ponder the scenario that he seems to have forgotten to add any momentum along the way. With the pedigree of talent both in front of the camera and behind, Transcendence has all the makings of something truly spectacular; the finished film however manages to be moderately interesting, yet fails to be gripping or engaging on any kind of level. With an obvious emphasis on the visuals, it’s very telling that the film opens by giving us what would have otherwise been it’s defining twist, an intriguing landscape with which to genuinely explore the modern reliance on technology, even if it is somewhat old hat in the wake of TV’s Revolution. Like most of the film’s ideas however, it’s half-baked at best – used for conversational purposes when it would serve the narrative infinitely better as a functioning environment.


That’s not to say that Transcendence is without it’s moments – an early statement on the philosophical function of the internet, for example, is one of this year’s most poetic lines of spoken dialogue – but far too many great moments are sandwiched in-between even more clunky scenes of sorrowful pondering, with entire characters left to serve as nothing but perfunctory single-note story advancers; most notably Cillian Murphy, whose character goes from FBI agent to full-on leader of the US military in what must have been the greatest off-screen promotion in the history of the cinema. Weirdly, Morgan Freeman’s character is given the same sort of behind-the-curtain advancement as well; Freeman being promoted between scenes from a simple scientist to an almost Agent Coulson-like figure of governmental scientific-intervention with no explanation whatsoever.


At the other end of the spectrum meanwhile, Depp’s turn as (the human) Will Castor sees the star in full 90’s  style swing, with his once-requisite charm, likeability and eccentricity perfectly suited to the swaggeringly scientist, bringing him to life as the figurative Johnny Depp of theoretical physics – complete with groupies. In his digital form however, Depp fares less well. Castor 2.0 may be very charismatic in the guise of an online cult leader figure, but the role does feel very pedestrian given Depp’s exuberance in the first act. Meanwhile, Paul Bettany is more or less wasted, Rebecca Hall mostly gets to cry and shout a lot (“strong female character” here being a synonym for “do whatever your man tells you”) and even the usual comfort factor that comes with the casting of Morgan Freeman is hindered by the use of some archetypical (yet effective) monologuing and the lack of defined function his character possesses. That said, Kate Mara is very decent as the young RIFT terrorist, but it’s just a single performance in a film steeped in wasted cast potential.


Paglen’s script is at its best when debating the bigger picture, but on a narrative level the film is simply too dense and pondering to build any kind of real traction, shaking the heavily-implied thriller angle again and again, whilst being far too cold and sterile for the romance angle, but too deftly plundering to function as a drama. It’s almost more fascinating to sit through Transcendence and attempt to work out what the film is than it is to contemplate as a complete work.


As predicted however, Wally Pfister’s direction is glossy and precise – his framing and aesthetic clearly influenced by his work with Nolan over the years – with his depth of field single-handedly justifying the film’s IMAX release overseas. Even on a musical level, the film is uncomfortably predictable and still manages to feel derivative of Nolan’s work, the latter of which defines the movie upon it’s closure. Ultimately, Transcendence becomes an ironic statement on its own story: the tale of a mankind’s advancement and downfall through technology restrained within a film well-made on a technical level but limited by it’s cold and robotic nature.



Catch Van Connor’s reviews in our Movies section and live on Slam Dunk Cinema every Saturday at 12PM on Sheffield Live! 93.2FM or on the podcast via iTunes.


In it
Johnny Depp, Rebecca Hall, Paul Bettany

Behind it
Wally Pfister

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