Most people drawn to new science fiction thriller Transcendence will do so out of curiosity for “the new Johnny Depp film”, but for those in the know, it is another name that holds the real attraction here. Wally Pfister, longtime cinematographer for Christopher Nolan, makes his directorial debut with this ambitious cautionary tale about the power struggle between Man and Technology. Spike Jonze broached similar territory in his recent indie hit, Her, but rather than making soft, sideways jibes about the number of hours we spend glued to social media at the expense of cultivating real relationships, Transcendence has grander, more fearful goals.
Firmly routed in the “what if” scenarios of 60s and 70s science fiction, while dipping its toe into the same universe explored by more recent bombastic efforts like The Terminator, The Matrix and A.I., Transcendence stars Johnny Depp as Will Caster, a pioneering scientist who has developed a sentient computer, PINN. While Will evangelises on the future possibilities of self-aware technologies, his work inevitably attracts the attention of the government, but also a terrorist organisation known as RIFT – Revolutionary Independence From Technology.
When RIFT launches an attack on Will and his colleagues, much of his work is destroyed and he is left facing certain death from radiation poisoning. In a desperate bid to preserve at least some element of his being, Will’s wife, Evelyn (Rebecca Hall) resolves to upload Will’s consciousness into PINN, despite the concerns of their friend and colleague Max Waters (Paul Bettany). To the rest of the world Will dies, but with Evelyn’s help, some part of Will is able to live on within the computer. But when she connects him to the Internet, granting him access to everything from the stock markets to government intel, Will quickly evolves into an entity nobody can contain or control.
The ideas in Transcendence are huge, and it takes an incredibly accomplished and steady hand to translate them into the kind of big budget intelligent spectacle to which Pfister and his collaborators aspire. An obvious reference point is Nolan’s own Inception, for which Pfister won the Best Cinematography Oscar. Inception is a film with an equally outlandish, perhaps even incomprehensible plot, but which succeeds through the bravado and grand spectacle of its execution. With Nolan and wife/producing partner Emma Thomas on board here as executive producers, one would hope that some of that experience and expertise would have permeated down into Transcendence, but sadly it proves a leap too far, and the film is never able to convincingly sell its premise.
That is not to say that Transcendence is a badly made film, in fact in many ways it succeeds in everything it sets out to achieve. While audiences may be slightly deflated by Depp’s relatively small amount of screen time, considering he is (wisely) given top billing and features prominently in the film’s marketing campaign, the large supporting cast acquits itself admirably. Rebecca Hall is the real star of the film here, given the unenviable role of doting wife-turned-enabler as Depp transitions from flesh & blood husband to pixelated antagonist, but for large sections of the narrative it is Evelyn we follow as she builds a new home in the desert from where Will can grow and learn.
Paul Bettany, a perennially likeable screen presence even in sub-par fare, is chief among those questioning the ethical and moral dilemmas raised by Evelyn’s actions. His character Max narrates the film, told in extended flashbacks from a future where technology appears to have been rendered obsolete, yet day to day life attempts to carry on otherwise unscathed as if RIFT has already won the one-sided war it was waging. Elsewhere, familiar character actors from the Nolan stable, including Morgan Freeman and Cillian Murphy, bring a certain stamp of credibility and intellectual weight to the production.
A big question hanging over the notion of Wally Pfister’s directorial debut is who he would entrust with photographic duties while he takes the helm. Jess Hall is the man given the task, a British cinematographer whose previous work includes lensing Son of Rambow, Hot Fuzz and The Spectacular Now – all of which have received praise for their distinctive look. Hall does a great job of giving Transcendence a slick, futuristic sheen, while also playing with the different architectural and natural landscapes inherent within a film that tackles the conflict between nature and technology. From expansive desert vistas, to ultra slow motion details of flowers and water droplets, Transcendence – visually at least – appears to be fitting in perfectly with the smart sci-fi genre it so clearly admires.
So where does Transcendence go wrong? The biggest disappointment about the film is that despite its talented cast, impressive visual style and lofty thematic ambitions, the story begins to unravel relatively early on, and only gets worse as the narrative reveals itself further. The finger of blame must be levelled primarily at first-time screenwriter Jack Paglen, but also, unfortunately, at Pfister. The film’s initial premise of a fully sentient artificial intelligence is a hot topic that has been explored in science fiction for decades, but which has never been closer to becoming a reality than it is today. The problem with Paglen’s script is where it goes after that, how it attempts to make this issue a human-based drama and, by extension, a global threat, as told within the familiar parameters of a traditional Hollywood thriller. Too often, cool ideas replace smart ones, which inevitably lead to dead ends and dumb solutions in order for the characters and the filmmakers to escape. Audiences will accept ridiculous concepts and implausible realities if they make sense within the world you build for them from the start. Where this relationship breaks down is when the filmmakers build a realistic, plausible reality, and then later on ask their audience to believe in body swapping, sentient rain and other such leaps into the abyss of pure fantasy.
Paglen and Pfister are never able to reconcile these problems and the result is a film that wants to be respected and admired for being high-brow, intelligent and thoughtful, but which repeatedly presents implausible, audacious and increasingly preposterous solutions to the intriguing problems it created. To come back to Inception, that film’s very notion of invading and permeating the abstract dreamspace of other people’s subconscious, manipulating ideas and staging full blown action set pieces on the scale of a Bond film within that setting is every bit as nonsensical as anything attempted in Transcendence. The difference is that the film introduced these ideas from the very beginning, never built a reality that suggested anything other than this to be true, and then proceeded to build layer upon layer of increasingly outrageous, bombastic spectacle on top of its already fantastical premise. Transcendence presented us with something we understood, something we recognised as being basically true, something we had probably already considered outside of our cinematic escapism, and then asked us to believe in magic. Had Transcendence dared to show its hand from the outset, the reaction to the film’s second half might have been different. As written, however, regardless of how beautifully the film was put together, Transcendence was always going to disappoint.