Wally Pfister is probably one of the most talented, yet unheralded, workers in Hollywood today. Many may not know that he’s actually the man behind the camera for every single one of director Christopher Nolan’s films (aside from his first, “Following,” and his upcoming sci-fi film, “Interstellar”). He even won an Oscar for his cinematography work on “Inception,” so it’s clear the man has talent. He knows how to shoot a movie and evoke emotions through visuals. Since film is a visual medium, that strength is arguably the most valuable to have in Hollywood. In this regard, his directorial debut, “Transcendence,” follows his tradition of excellence (despite being shot by “Hot Fuzz” and “The Spectacular Now” cinematographer, Jess Hall), but it’s lacking nearly everywhere else. Pfister certainly picked some things up from Nolan, but he lacks his penchant for storytelling. With an uneven pace and unexplored themes, “Transcendence” can be described as little more than a missed opportunity.
Dr. Will Caster (Johnny Depp) is an artificial intelligence expert. With many years of research and hard work behind him, he hopes to one day create a machine that will be able to reach singularity—or as he likes to put it, transcendence—that moment in time when a machine reaches superhuman intelligence. It’s a vision that doesn’t seem to be too far off in the future, which sparks a radical movement of extremists determined to stop it. After giving a speech about the future of artificial intelligence, a member of that extremist group shoots him. Although he survives the attack, the bullet is shown to have been laced with poison, which entered his bloodstream, giving him only a month to live. In light of this, his wife, Evelyn (Rebecca Hall) comes up with a crazy idea. She suggests planting a nanochip in his brain and uploading his consciousness to a supercomputer, thus ensuring he lives on. Her partner, Max (Paul Bettany), reluctantly agrees to give it a shot, though the odds of success are low. Much to their surprise, however, it works and Will is essentially alive, or as close as one can be to it, in a computer.
These early moments, along with the closing, are perhaps the best in the entire film. Though essentially a sped up tragedy—complete with dramatic music, emotional breakdowns and even a sad Morgan Freeman narration for good measure—it works. The capable actors bring their characters to life, upping the ante for what’s to come. However, anyone who has seen a film about technology achieving sentience will see all of it coming from a mile away, which is to say things don’t quite go according to plan.
This gives way to a plethora of wonderful ideas that, sadly, are haphazardly introduced and never intelligently expanded on. At one point, after Will reaches his sought after transcendence, the film seems to be heading in the right direction and finds its focus. Will begins to heal the sick, even those with long time illnesses that modern medicine hasn’t found cures for yet. He lets the blind see, the paralyzed walk and more. It asks, what if we could be better than God? What if we could fix the mistakes a supposed flawless creator burdened us with? What if we could see everything all at once, as any omnipotent being should? What if we could heal someone’s potentially life threating injuries in seconds, to the point where it’s like those injuries never even happened? These are compelling thoughts, ones that seem wonderful at first, but the complications of playing God slowly reveal themselves, showing that these vulnerabilities and afflictions are what make us human.
Granted, the effects of playing God are hardly breaking new cinematic ground, but they gave “Transcendence” the weight it so desperately needed. Unfortunately, it’s also around this point that it introduces its most absurd idea: the taking over of actual human bodies through the use of nanobots and “connecting” them to Will’s digital infrastructure. While I hesitate to say that such an event is completely out of the realm of scientific plausibility, it nevertheless gives the film that typical Hollywood feel and essentially strips it of the ideas it had just minutes before introduced.
Despite messy narrative and thematic arcs, “Transcendence” still manages to pack a ton of awe into its runtime, mostly thanks to Pfister’s understanding of cinematography. The shot composition is solid, the camera movements are fluid and its interesting focus on seemingly mundane objects ground the film. For those interested in the technical creation of filmmaking, “Transcendence” will be a thing of beauty, but it all goes back to those missed opportunities. Despite similar central ideas, it never quite reaches the bombastic action of something like “The Terminator” or the heartfelt wonders of last year’s “Her.” It tries to combine both into one cohesive whole, one that can tug at the heartstrings while also keeping things exciting, but, ultimately, it collapses under the weight of its own ambition.
Transcendence receives 2.5/5