Looking back at Wally Pfister’s cinematography career is very interesting. He started off his career in the early-to-mid 90’s working on Inside Out I-IV (which based on its IMDb description, is basically a series of softcore anthology porn films), as well as various erotic thrillers including Lower Level, Secret Games, Objects of Obsession and Animal Instincts I & II. Hey, you gotta star somewhere, right? It wasn’t until his first collaboration with Christopher Nolan on Memento did he really start getting jobs with bigger Hollywood productions. However, it was his collaboration on all of Christopher Nolan’s films that earned him three Oscar nominations for Batman Begins, The Prestige and The Dark Knight, before finally earning himself the prestigious award for his work on Inception. It’s a long and rewarding career, but sometimes, people have bigger ambitions and now Wally Pfister will direct his first film, Transcendence, a big budget sci-fi blockbuster with an A-List cast, and with Christopher Nolan acting as an executive producer on the project (an empty credit that means nothing, but still), we’ll see if Wally Pfister can pull off a successful directing career in the same way Barry Sonnenfeld did.
Transcendence follows Will Caster (Johnny Depp), a researcher whose work revolved around artificial intelligence. One day, after doing a presentation, Will is a victim of murder/suicide by a member of an anti-technology group called RIFT. By using the technology at Will’s lab, his wife, Evelyn Caster (Rebecca Hall), and best friend, Max Waters (Paul Bettany) attempt to upload Will’s mind into a computer in an effort to save him. And it works.
I really like this concept, the potential is limitless. With this idea, the film could explore some very interesting and thought provoking questions. Like, how much would a man’s humanity be active within the A.I.? What wants or needs would the A.I. have? Would it be self-serving, or altruistic? Would it be something that can be reasoned with? How would it affect the world’s technology? How would people react? Would the God-like powers scare or attract people? How would it change future scientific research? How would it affect religion? Would it be worshiped, or be treated as an abomination? Would religion even be relevant by the A.I.’s existence? How wide would the grasp of the AI. be? Would its omnipresence be able to transcend space and time? Would that mean it could see into the past and future? If so, would it share that knowledge, or would it not interfere? If it does, how would that change life as we know it? Like I said, with the number of interesting things you could explore with this idea, there is so much that can be done with this film.
Unfortunately, the film does little to nothing in trying to explore any of these ideas.
Regrettably, the biggest problem with the film is Wally Pfister himself. He’s in way over his head, and the film suffers for it. The film’s pacing is incredibly off, the tone is poorly established, it lacks in suspense and for a good chunk of the film it is frankly uninteresting and boring. Wally Pfister simply does not belong in the director’s chair, perhaps if he made a smaller and personal film, maybe there’s a chance at something unique and interesting that might have otherwise been removed from studio interference. The screenplay from first-timer, Jack Paglen, is full of two-dimensional characters with unclear motivations, a lack of character development, a story that is full of stretches where nothing of any substance happens, an almost offensive and poor attempt at adding depth, occasionally laughable dialogue and mixed messages regarding the ultimate point of the film. Granted for a first screenplay being produced by the studio as a big budget film, it is very likely that there has been some tinkering with the script that made it far from what is originally was.
One film that came to mind after seeing the movie and that film was Prometheus. Many people were looking forward to it, and many were disappointed. I personally enjoyed it, despite its many, many, many faults. A film like Transcendence just goes to show how bad Prometheus could have been. At the very least, Prometheus was thrilling and consistently interesting. Yes, the characters’ decision-making skills were lacking, and certain plot elements made no sense. However, Prometheus at least asked questions, it explored some interesting ideas, the use of symbolism and subtext was very well done, and sure the payoff was lackluster, there was still a lot to think about once the film was over; of course once you finish thinking about all the plot holes. With Transcendence, it does barely anything with the concept. Once Will Caster’s consciousness is a part of the A.I., what does he do? He puts money into his wife’s bank account, plans for expansion, and makes superhumans out of some disabled people. That is pretty much it. Also, his presence doesn’t seem to have much effect on the world around the characters and the government doesn’t seem to care about the situation until it’s too late (for some reason the film spans over a couple years). Any interesting moments were very brief and inconsequential. It just feels like a complete waste.
Speaking of waste, let’s get to the acting. Watching the film felt like Wally Pfister was acknowledging his inexperience in directing actors and figured getting a really talented cast would help in that department. Well, actors, no matter how good, are not miracle workers. Only two actors in the film barely manage to impress with the material, Rebecca Hall and Paul Bettany. Rebeca Hall carries the film well, and her emotional performance adds a lot to an otherwise cold film. Had the role been better written and directed, it would be good enough that I would call for a possible Oscar nomination, but with this, her performance is wasted on bad material. Paul Bettany has always been really good in my opinion, despite the fact that he seems to appear in a lot of really bad stuff (I was hoping this film would be a change to that), and he is very good in this. It certainly helps that his character is the most interesting and well developed, relatively speaking. Johnny Depp was OK. He was good for the first several scenes before he went into the computer, but after, he is just too monotone. And yes, he is A.I., so it should be monotone, but it wasn’t creepy, like HAL 9000 from 2001: A Space Odyssey, Johnny Depp was just there, and made no lasting impression. Every other actor including Morgan Freeman, Cillian Murphy, Kate Mara, Clifton Collins Jr. and Cole Hauser are all underused in roles that are so unmemorable that I cannot describe these characters without just referring to their profession.
Apart from a couple good performances, the film doesn’t have much else going for it. The cinematography was really good, Wally Pfister definitely knew what he wanted to get out of cinematographer, Jess Hall, and he does deliver some nice imagery. The effects are also really good; the budget was used to fine effect in that aspect. If only Wally Pfister focused more on telling an exciting narrative.
Transcendence is easily the biggest disappointment of 2014 so far. With so much potential and build up, and so little payoff, the film offers nothing for audiences. As a directorial debut, it’s unimpressive, as a thriller, it’s boring and as science fiction, it provides nothing for people to ponder. The film does not know what it wants to be. Had it been a romantic drama about a woman clinging to whatever is left of the man she loved, that would have been fine. Had it been a cheesy, campy action thriller about a dude going into a computer and taking over the world, that would have been perfectly fine as well. If it wanted to be a thoughtful and philosophical exploration on the nature of A.I. and its place in the world, that also would be fine. But if the filmmakers wanted to take all these approaches, then it failed at properly balancing them. Though I did make the comparison, if you’re someone who loved Prometheus and didn’t care about the film’s issues, then I still think Transcendence has nothing to offer. It was an unfortunate waste of time. Also, the (hopefully unintentional) anti-science message that the film seems to be leaning towards once it was all said and done left a really bad taste in my mouth.
Side Note: OK, so for sci-fi geeks, Transcendence is a definite disappointment, but there are several original sci-fi films coming out this year. There is Earth to Echo, Edge of Tomorrow (though it is based on a novel), Jupiter Ascending, Lucy and Interstellar (an actual Christopher Nolan film, as opposed to a glorified wannabe). Hopefully, none of these will be as disappointing. In other news, Transcendence screenwriter, Jack Paglen, is wanted by the studios to pen the Prometheus sequel and a Battlestar Galactica reboot. If studio interference is the cause of the bad writing in Transcendence, then hopefully they’ll back off this time around, and maybe we’ll see something much better and interesting with his future projects.