Wally Pfister’s been knows as Christopher Nolan’s director of photography and right-hand man for over a decade now. Upon the conclusion of The Dark Knight Trilogy, Pfister decided to move into directing for himself. Many, myself included, were greatly anticipating his debut Transcendence, it looked to be a smart, intelligent, original sci-fi film, Nolan was executive producer, and a few Nolan regulars (Cillian Murphy, Morgan Freeman) were cast.
As we now know, Transcendence is more likely to be remembered as one of the biggest flops of the year. It tanked upon release in the USA, as has grossed significantly less than its $100 million budget. A lot of the blame for this has been targeted at Johnny Depp, also the star of last year’s mega-flop The Lone Ranger, audiences, it appears, have grown tired of him. In actuality, this is Depp’s least annoying performance in some time, while he’s hardly brilliant (mostly he’s required to be emotionless and robotic), the criticisms he regularly receives do not apply here.
Depp plays Dr Will Caster, a genius computer scientist in the near future working with artificial intelligence. He’s fascinated by the idea of ‘the singularity’, when AI overtakes human intelligence, or as he calls it ‘transcendence’. An anti-technology terrorist group (‘Neo-Luddites’) have been carrying out attacks on advanced computer labs and after giving a speech, Caster is shot with a radioactive bullet. Given a month to live, he decides to try and upload his consciousness to a computer with the assistance of his wife (Rebecca Hall) and college (Paul Bettany) so he can live on.
It’s hard to pin down where Transcendence fails; most of its individual elements aren’t that bad. As expected, it’s nicely shot, effectively bringing to life it’s future world in the unusual location of a small desert town rather that some urban metropolis. The acting is generally fine, the story mostly lacks any obvious downfall and the dialogue, while unmemorable, is never cringe-worthy. And yet the film is never particularly interesting, gripping, or exciting. It just trudges along with indifference.
It’s a real shame, as Transcendence is absolutely the type of film that I really want to support. It’s a big-budget original screenplay based Sci-Fi that’s entirely fuelled by ideas. They might not all be things we’ve never heard before but it’s aims are to explore the storytelling potential behind these concepts, it never feels the need to shoehorn in a massive battle sequence or romantic subplot, indeed it’s an almost completely action-free affair. There are plenty of special effects but they never take over the screen.
The film also takes risks rarely seen in blockbuster filmmaking, Depp, the star, ceases to be the lead in the film’s first act and his wife becomes the focus. He’s then relegated to screens, giving the film an unwelcome gender-swapped comparison to Her, as unfortunately that film explored some of these themes in a superior fashion. But that’s not all Transcendence is about, it delves into nanotechnology for a good chunk as well.
Only come its conclusion does Transcendence veer in more obviously flawed directions, it’s not a total disaster as its box office suggests but a significant disappointment. There’s still a little to admire in the film’s ambitions, attempting to be a thoughtful sci-fi story on a blockbuster scale, but it unfortunately stumbles in its execution.