This review contains some spoilers.
Really, I should have seen this coming. A first-time director with a hundred million dollar budget; when has that ever worked out? Catwoman? Eragon? 47 Ronin? And now Wally Pfister, a man who rose to fame as Nolan’s cinematographer (whose name is certainly why this thing got greenlit), has decided to step into the directors chair. I had high hopes for this film based purely on the director’s long-time collaboration with my lord and saviour but the finished product just goes to prove that Pfister is no Zhang Yimou.
The basic plot, as you may have gathered from the excellent trailer (but not the fucking awful posters), is that Johnny Depp (appearing slightly drugged here given the slurred, undefinable accent and slightly vacant facial expressions throughout) is an AI researcher who is assassinated by an neo-luddite group controlled by Kate Mara, but before his untimely death his wife (Rebecca Hall) uploads his brain to their AI supercomputer and then the internet, where he starts going a bit HAL. This is not a bad premise to be honest and raises a number of interesting issues regarding the nature of consciousness, what makes us human and transhumanism. Too bad the movie has no idea what it wants to say about them. It pays lip-service to the question of whether iDepp is actually him or just a simulacrum but it never wrings anything satisfactory from it, or any of its other potentially interesting moral quandaries which it does not seem to have any idea what to do with.
Character-wise the film is remarkably thin. Depp starts off alright while human (although the accent is distracting as all hell) but Depp.exe is remarkably more one-note and the film can’t decide whether it wants him to be the villain or not, laying on the creepy cult imagery as he builds himself an army of followers (also, what is it about supervillains making armies out of disabled people they cure? Iron Man 3 did this as well and it made it hard for me to want Stark to kill them there) but then attempting some kind of tragic monster thing in the Universal movies vein closer to the end, which by that point does not fit in the slightest.
Rebecca Hall is a bit better, although she seems to only have two modes in this film, anxious and crying, and for most of the second half of the film she, like the rest of the cast just get to sit there looking increasingly worried by whatever Will is doing at that point. Paul Bettany, as their long time friend, is pretty much the same, only really serving to invent the macguffin for the climax. He is also the most easily convinced man in the world, as after voicing a token objection to Hall’s plan to upload a sapient AI who’s stated first goal is Wall Street to the internet just leaves when she tells him to so she can get on with it. Shortly after he gets kidnapped by Jenny McCarthy and friends and joins their side without much persuasion either.
Cillian Murphy turns up as an FBI agent for a bit but does bugger-all beside call the soldiers in for the climax (are we noticing a pattern here?) and Morgan Freeman does literally nothing but stand around. Neither does Kate Mara (besides convincing Paul Bettany that Depp is evil) who only gets to say that she hates AIs occasionally before pretty much disappearing from the story.
For a plot that is meant to be about creating intelligence this film tends to lack it. After being uploaded to the cloud, Depp makes a fortune on the stock market using a company in his wife’s name which they then spend on building a massive underground laboratory complex next to a small desert town complete with a field of solar panels visible by even the most outdated surveillance satellite. This is noticed by absolutely no-one for two years besides Kate Mara; not the FBI (who are probably wondering why the AI researcher whose partner was just assassinated for their work disappeared), the taxman (who will always track you down) or health and safety, who generally take a dim view of involuntary human experimentation.
This is also very plainly a script about science and technology written by someone who is neither a scientist nor works with computers. Depp apparently manages to infiltrate every computer in the world via the internet, meaning that the soldiers at the end come armed with hummers and old-fashioned artillery as apparently every piece of military technology made during the last twenty years is capable of accessing facebook and is not manually controlled (or were tanks and planes just beyond this film’s hundred million dollar budget?). Depp also has plot convenience wi-fi, as one of his cyborg minions is captured underground by putting him in a makeshift Faraday cage (because the soldiers have never heard of signal jammers or chaff), which disconnects him from Depp but also prevents him from re-connecting once he has left it and stops the regenerative nano-machines Depp has imbued him with for reasons which are never explained.
Interestingly, the film starts three years after the climax (which involves one of the most contrived dilemmas I have seen in some time), with a post-computer world being completely fucked following the loss of the internet. There’s no power and food shortages and the place rather resembles the world of The Last of Us minus the zombies, so apparently it is impossible to generate electricity or use a computer without the internet. Jack Palgen, the writer on this thing, does appear to be old enough to remember a time before social networking but apparently his pretensions to tragedy overcame his common sense here. He’s also the screenwriter for Prometheus 2, so it may still turn out better than the first one.
As far as Pfister himself goes, his direction isn’t awful or incompetent (unlike Carl Rinsch), just not very good. As with all cinematographers-turned-directors he delivers a pretty film, although as many critics have pointed out there is not a single memorable image in it. One of his biggest problems (which appears to be common with first-time directors on a huge budget) is that he has no sense of scale. This is meant to be a global story affecting the whole world, but it feels extremely constrained, which I think in part may be due to a preference for close-up shots in scenes which would be far better served with wider angles (a montage of neo-luddite’s being arrested feels like it’s all happening within a hundred metre radius). It really feels like a high-budgeted TV production along the lines of Game of Thrones, where it’s clear they don’t have the budget to show everything so they fill their time with smaller scenes and use the occasional CG wide-shot of a city or army to imply a larger world outside the frame. Pacing is another problem here as well, as the story just kind of lurches along without much of a defined structure (despite seeming to have three distinct acts). Pfister also is not very skilled at action, with what little there is in this film feeling very static and without the sense of wonder he is clearly aiming for.
In conclusion, Transcendence is a superficial, muddled and thematically incoherent attempt at intelligent science fiction without a whole lot to offer except for the knowledge that we will soon be seeing Pfister’s camerawork again in Nolan’s next movie after Interstellar and I look forward to that at least.