Silver Screen Riot: “Transcendence” Does Not Transcend

Every once in a blue moon an unsung talent breaks out of their wheelhouse to extraordinary results.  Quentin Tarantino famously emerged from a video store, learning his craft at the film school of VHS rentals. Ron Howard was a can-kicking child actor before stepping in to direct acclaimed films like Apollo 13, Rush and Academy Award winner A Beautiful Mind. Even Japanese auteur and samurai-lordship himself Akira Kurosawa trained as a painter before ever stepping behind a camera. The lesson is: great directors can come from pretty much anywhere. Wally Pfister, longtime cinematographer for Christopher Nolan (another cinebuff who did not receive formal film school education) and head hancho of Transcendence, has spent the better part of two decades behind a camera. But this is the first time he’s sat in the black foldout chair etched with the word “director.” In this 100 million dollar dry run of his, he’s all but sullied the name.

Pfister directs Transcendence with the style of a National Geographic cinematographer. He looms on intimate nature shots – drops of water claim close ups like they’re signing off Sunset Boulevard – before casting panoramic crane shots of jumbled mountains cloaked in forest or tumbleweed-kicking stretch of desert lit up by solar panels as far as the eye can see. Pfister’s settings are beautifully lighted and wonderfully scenic but they still feel like the work of a DP showing off in full masturbatory fashion. Any certifiable director would have slashed wasted minutes lingering on Kodak moments without blinking.

While Pfister flexes his eye for topography, the story beats from screenwriter Jack Paglen quickly become the biggest point of contention. Paglen’s plot follows Dr. Will Caster (Johnny Depp), a brilliant scientist on the verge of breaking new ground on AI technology that will forever change the world. Talked into a presentation to secure grant money by wife and partner Evelyn (Rebecca Hall), Will (Paglen’s cipher) brings up some interesting questions about our relationship to technology. Since SkyNet, we’ve had a general distrust of technology overtaking their human creators. The threat lies in supremacy. While human minds are capped by biological limitations, machines face no such boundaries (a theme that Spike Jonze‘s Her explored in much simpler and yet more compelling and grandiose terms). This goes on to become the central theme of the movie: can we trust technology that outgrows us?

As one might expect, not everyone in Paglen’s tale thinks an all-powerful machine is a good thing so anti-technology, terrorist network Rift, lead by an inexcusably bleach blonde Kate Mara, are willing to do whatever it takes to prevent a future that involves Terminators, the Matrix, and whatnot. Cue an assassination attempt on Will that proves slowly successful (radiation poisoning FTW!). Will’s ticking clock leads Evelyn to take the next step in their research by “uploading” Will’s consciousness into the existing model of AI, code name PIMM. While his body withers and dies, his “self” is transferred into a super computer. Colleague and trusted friend of the Crasters, Max Waters (Paul Bettany), says that the thing in the computer ain’t Will no more but Evelyn just won’t hear it. Like Joaquin Phoenix, she’s seduced by Depp’s Him.

And speaking of Depp, can we all just finally own up to the fact that he’s just not a good actor? He depends on hairdos to express his emotional status (also, why does every movie scientist need at least one scene with frazzled bedhead?) and not caked in makeup or prancing around a Tim Burton set, he’s just dull to watch. Even without the weird, he’s still oppressively meh. It doesn’t help that his lines and those of his co-stars sound like they were scrawled into a napkin hours before shooting. Some of Paglen’s philosophy masks itself as high concept but with dialogue this trawling, Paglen reveals his cupboard isn’t filled with China. Pfister, likewise, proves inept at directing his actors, a cast that by all means ought to bring more to the table than they do. As things are, they’re like the guests who all cheaped out and brought baguettes to a wine party.

Pfister’s begged and borrowed a cast from cohort Nolan only to have nothing to do with them. Morgan Freeman only seems here to give a brief voice over (that adds nothing to the film). Otherwise, he looks confused and is always a few minutes behind the other characters. He looked more engaged in his infamous Now You See Me interview than he is here. Cillian Murphy, on the other hand, just has absolutely nothing to do. He might be an under-appreciated talent but not so much that he would sign off for such a flat and lifeless role ad nauseum. Are production re-writes to blame or was Pfister cashing in favors across the board? I guess we’ll never know.

Act one and two have their issues but are by-in-large competently compelling bites of fiction, especially in the context of the ghastly third act. When Pfister, Depp and Co. round the bases and start the journey to home plate, everything gets totally sacked. Rome wasn’t build in a day but it sure could burn in one. Like Will’s late stage admission that “There’s not enough power!”, the internal logic of the film goes haywire in a thoughtless ending that I still can’t make heads or tails of. Instead of offering up an earned and earnest conclusion, Pfister and Paglen eschew explanation like a student who’s “dog ate their homework”. It’s as unsatisfying as one pringle, as tasteless as a whole wheat bun.

Plot mechanics are omnipresent and omnipotent until the script demands it not so, characters unfold incompatible reveals without satisfying explanation, and by the end… well it’s hard to even say how the thing even ended but I’m pretty sure the Apes won? It’s like if Inception had forgone the spinning top for a closing shot of a grinning Leo clone. Keep the WTFs in the can of worms please. Pfister’s shown he can replicate Nolan in broad strokes but, like an AI’s inability to prove its self-awareness, he misses the inexplicable piece that makes a story feel human… oh, and good.

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Matt Oakes saw over 150 movies in theaters and probably drank more than his weight in beer last year. Check out more reviews at his website and follow Matt on Facebook and on Twitter.